TORONTO — A group of activists called on the Ontario government to ban the practice of stationing uniformed police officers at high schools across the province after the Toronto District School Board voted to permanently end the program.
The decision by the country's largest school board to scrap the controversial School Resource Officer program was met with loud applause Wednesday night. The vote came a little more than a week after TDSB staff released a report recommending the elimination of the program because it left some students feeling intimidated or uncomfortable.
Phillip Morgan, a member of Education Not Incarceration, called the decision "a huge victory" that has been 10 years in the making.
"It has been years of writing to trustees, teach-ins, public deputations and various other strategies to get the TDSB to listen to folks who have found themselves most harmed by the SRO program," Morgan said Thursday at a news conference with several other community organizations.
"We know that with the TDSB there has been a history of racism and discrimination, we know that with policing in Toronto there is also a history of racism and discrimination, so the folks who find themselves at the intersection of these two institutions through the SRO program have been particularly affected."
This is an important first step, but not the last step.Phillip Morgan
Morgan said there is still work left to do because the program is in place at the Toronto Catholic District School Board and other school boards in the province.
"This is an important first step, but not the last step," he said.
Catholic school board to continue program
In an email Thursday, Toronto Catholic District School Board spokeswoman Emmy Szekeres Milne said the SRO program will continue to operate in its 21 schools across the city.
Andrea Vasquez Jimenez, co-chair of Latinx, Afro-Latin America Abya Yala Education Network (LAEN), commended the TDSB's "bold stance of centring on the voices and lived experiences of our most marginalized and vulnerable students and youth."
Vasquez Jimenez, who also spoke to reporters outside Toronto police headquarters, said the Ministry of Education should step in to make the same decision for all Ontario schools.
All school boards are different, with each having a unique set of circumstances, which is why school boards remain in the best position to determine the format of partnerships with local police.Mitzie Hunter
Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said while school boards may partner with police for a variety of reasons, including community building, the ministry does not provide funding for or have involvement in the programs.
"All school boards are different, with each having a unique set of circumstances, which is why school boards remain in the best position to determine the format of partnerships with local police, so that the local needs of students are prioritized," Hunter said in a statement.
The School Resource Officer program, which the TDSB suspended at the end of August, saw police officers deployed at 45 of its high schools in an effort to improve safety and perceptions of police. It was implemented in 2008 after 15-year-old Jordan Manners was shot and killed at C. W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute the previous year.
Some students felt intimidated
The TDSB staff report earlier this month said the review of the program found the majority of those surveyed had a generally positive impression. However, it noted, about 10 per cent felt intimidated, uncomfortable or that they were being watched at school.
Although staff putting together the report heard from a significant number who supported the presence of an officer in their school (57 per cent), it said the board's priority must be "to mitigate against the differentiated and discriminatory impact of the SRO program."
A wide range of educators and community-based workers would better support students, student safety and student achievement.Rodney Diverlus
Rodney Diverlus, a member of Black Lives Matter, said there are better supports for students than having officers in schools.
"We believe the removal of the program puts an emphasis on the Ministry of Education to actually give adequate funding to the TDSB and other boards to support in having child and youth workers, equity-based social workers, more guidance counsellors and more time for teachers and teaching staff," Diverlus said. "A wide range of educators and community-based workers would better support students, student safety and student achievement."
Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash would not comment directly on TDSB's decision, but said "the interaction between police and young people is an extremely beneficial one."
Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack, however, said the board's decision did not come as a surprise, adding that he thinks it was politically motivated.
"I think there is a lot of value in the program and now that value has been squandered or lost," McCormack said.
For me, someone who has worked in community-based policing, this is the type of group where you want ... to understand what's going on and you want to improve the relationship.Mike McCormack
He said he understands the need to address the concerns those who feel intimidated, but "here's an opportunity to look at that 10 per cent and say, 'Why do you have these perceptions?'"
"For me, someone who has worked in community-based policing, this is the type of group where you want ... to understand what's going on and you want to improve the relationship," McCormack said.'
Meanwhile, Toronto Mayor John Tory said Thursday that he was disappointed the board did not decide to improve the program.
"The reason why I supported and continue to support the fact we should have reviewed the program and make changes to improve it was because I also took note of the fact that there were many, many other people who appeared in front of the police board and in the school board's own survey who said they thought the program was good," Tory said.
The Toronto Police Services Board has also been reviewing the SRO program, with the assessment being carried out by Ryerson University.
Board chair Andrew Pringle said in an interview that he will be bringing forward a recommendation next month to cancel the assessment.
"I think then we'll reach out to school boards and offer to work with them if they have other suggestions," Pringle said.
The TDSB staff report recommended the board continue to work with police to ensure a safe school environment.
Spokesman Ryan Bird said in an email that the board's other existing relationships with police, such as Community Liaison Officers, will continue.
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