Ed­mon­ton trustee re­signs over refugee re­marks

Of­fi­cers de­ter vi­o­lence by stu­dents from ‘wartorn coun­tries’: Johner

Calgary Herald - - CITY + REGION - JON NY WAKE­FIELD AND LAU­REN BOOTHBY jwake­field@postmedia.com lboothby@postmedia.com

An Ed­mon­ton pub­lic school trustee has re­signed af­ter link­ing refugee chil­dren to vi­o­lence in schools.

Ch­eryl Johner, the Ed­mon­ton Pub­lic Schools trustee for Ward A, made the comments at the end of a lengthy meet­ing Tues­day fo­cused on the fu­ture of school re­source of­fi­cers (SROS) — a con­tro­ver­sial, decades-old pro­gram that de­ploys city po­lice of­fi­cers to lo­cal schools.

Ward G trustee Brid­get Stir­ling had brought for­ward a mo­tion ask­ing for an in­de­pen­dent study of the SRO pro­gram fol­low­ing con­cerns about the im­pact armed po­lice of­fi­cers have on marginal­ized stu­dents.

While the board ap­proved the re­view, a mo­tion to sus­pend the pro­gram pend­ing its out­come failed on a tie vote. Johner op­posed the mo­tion.

“My mind goes to the num­ber of refugee stu­dents that come into our district that are from wartorn coun­tries, that have never known school be­fore ar­riv­ing here,” Johner said via video con­fer­ence. “All they’ve known is vi­o­lence. When those stu­dents — some­times — en­ter our schools, they can be vi­o­lent there as well.

“And I feel that the safety of stu­dents is crit­i­cally im­por­tant, that other stu­dents feel safe as they go to their own schools. The of­fi­cers act as a de­ter­rent, they can re­spond quickly to de-es­ca­late sit­u­a­tions when needed,” she said.

On Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, Johner an­nounced her res­ig­na­tion, ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately.

“My comments were in­ap­pro­pri­ate and im­me­di­ately re­gret­table,” Johner said in a state­ment. “I take full re­spon­si­bil­ity for what I said, and sin­cerely apol­o­gize for the hurt and up­set I have caused our fam­i­lies, stu­dents, staff and com­mu­nity mem­bers.”

Sev­eral groups and in­di­vid­u­als con­demned Johner’s re­marks and had called for her res­ig­na­tion.

Jib­ril Ibrahim, pres­i­dent of the So­mali Cana­dian Cul­tural So­ci­ety of Ed­mon­ton, has two chil­dren in pub­lic school and sits on the Ed­mon­ton po­lice chief’s African com­mu­nity li­ai­son com­mit­tee.

“This is un­ac­cept­able,” Ibrahim said of the comments.

He came to Canada as a refugee and said many refugee chil­dren fear of­fi­cers in uni­form be­cause of ex­pe­ri­ences in their home coun­tries.

“I’ve al­ways been won­der­ing, why do we need to have po­lice (in schools)?” he added. “But now I’ve ... seen some of the things that some of the peo­ple have in their minds.”

Janet Dench, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cana­dian Coun­cil for Refugees, said Johner’s re­marks fly in the face of the refugee ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Refugees are peo­ple who are forced to flee for their lives — they are the vic­tims of vi­o­lence,” Dench said in an email. “Refugees prob­a­bly have a higher ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the value of peace and se­cu­rity than many Cana­di­ans, be­cause they know what it is like not to have it.”

Anna Kirova, a pro­fes­sor in the U of A fac­ulty of ed­u­ca­tion, said the idea refugee stu­dents are uniquely pre­dis­posed to vi­o­lence is false.

“I think that jus­ti­fy­ing the pres­ence of po­lice of­fi­cers in the schools with the in­creased num­ber of refugee chil­dren in schools is com­pletely in­ap­pro­pri­ate,” she said. “Ev­ery­thing that the re­search shows is that these chil­dren have a range of is­sues, the least of which is vi­o­lence.”

Kirova, who spe­cial­izes in the in­te­gra­tion of im­mi­grant and refugee chil­dren in schools, re­cently re­viewed 25 stud­ies on the topic.

She said refugee stu­dents some­times ex­hibit anx­i­ety, in­se­cu­rity, PTSD, feel­ings of help­less­ness and ad­just­ment prob­lems, but that anger is rel­a­tively un­com­mon.

“There are some stud­ies — four out of 25 I re­cently re­viewed — that showed that there are some be­hav­iours re­lated to anger in male chil­dren who have been in refugee camps for an ex­tended pe­riod of time, who have no so­cial sup­port in the com­mu­nity that they’re in, or parental sup­port, or pro­fes­sional sup­port,” she said.

“So if we just say that in gen­eral they’re more vi­o­lent and that’s why we need po­lice pres­ence in schools — it’s not recorded in the (aca­demic) lit­er­a­ture that I’m aware of.”

Johner was first elected in 2010. In her res­ig­na­tion let­ter, she said she has “tried to be a pas­sion­ate de­fender of the rights and safety of all chil­dren, and an ad­vo­cate for safe, in­clu­sive learn­ing en­vi­ron­ments. I rec­og­nize my words yes­ter­day do not re­flect these ac­tions, and I deeply re­gret this.

“I know the divi­sion and the board of trustees will con­tinue their crit­i­cal work of ad­dress­ing sys­tem­atic racism in Ed­mon­ton Pub­lic Schools and our so­ci­ety.”

Board chair Tr­isha Estabrooks con­demned Johner’s comments at a press con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, al­though she said ini­tially she did not hear them.

“When I did go back and lis­ten, and heard what was said, I was up­set. It is un­ac­cept­able, it is racist, it is wrong, and her res­ig­na­tion is the right step for­ward,” she said.


Ch­eryl Johner re­signed as an Ed­mon­ton school board trustee af­ter mak­ing comments link­ing refugee stu­dents to vi­o­lence.

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