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NEWS (Nov. 2017): Collateral damage

November 24th, 2017 · No Comments

Community outreach suffers with TDSB ban on SROs

COURTESY JESSICA LEE/TORONTO DISTRICT SCHOOL BOARD School Watch Officer Andrea Harris (front row, third from left) was part of a group of officers from 14 Division who celebrated the Day of Pink at Harbord Collegiate Institute in April 2016. The Day of Pink is a worldwide event aimed at raising awareness to stop discrimination, gender-based bullying, homophobia, and transphobia.

By Brian Burchell

It was a novel idea: one cellphone, a shoestring budget, and a few bikes. All shared by the four police constables who made up 14 Division’s School Watch Officer (SWO) program. Together, they served ten schools west of Spadina Avenue, including Central Technical School, Central Toronto Academy, Harbord Collegiate Institute, and Heydon Park Secondary School. Available before, after, and during school, the officers ran programs (dodgeball every Thursday at Palmerston Public School), and got to know the school community.

The program was cancelled this school year, swept up in the temporary suspension of the similarly named School Resource Officer (SRO) program, a suspension that a newly released Toronto District School Board (TDSB) staff report recommends making permanent.

Approximately 36 police constables were assigned to 75 Toronto schools under the SRO program. It was created after a report into the death of a student at a Toronto school in 2007 recommended placing “more caring adults” in schools. However, the program has come under fire in recent years from groups like Black Lives Matter who say it promotes racial bias and is insensitive to students who are intimidated by the presence of a uniformed officer on school property.

“The suspension and the ending of the [SRO] program is the direction we should be going,” said Ausma Malik (TDSB Ward 10, Trinity-Spadina), who co-authored the motion to suspend the SRO program pending a review.

She said that the report “called for more youth workers, more counsellors, but it never said we should have uniformed police officers in schools.

“The SRO program is one step beyond and it’s not the type of environment, where police in some schools even have offices, where many students will feel comfortable or thrive in.”

Malik said she was not aware that the SWO program, which she views as something very different, had also been suspended.

“[It’s more of a] community liaison officer relationship that schools in our area have,” explained the trustee. “It is a capability for school communities to get to know and build relationships with local police.”

Indeed, the two programs are quite different.

Unlike SROs, who were assigned to work eight-hour shifts Monday to Friday at a specific school, four constables serving ten schools formed the SWO team. “We work eight days in a row of ten-hour days, then get six days off,” said Police Constable Andrea Harris, one of the officers assigned to the program. “Thursdays are our overlap day where we have all four School Watch officers in. We use this day to pass on info for the next team to continue working on.”

While SROs usually used patrol cars to get around, SWOs favoured a two-wheeled approach.

“We like using the bicycles as we find people are more likely to approach us and speak to us,” said Harris. “We can ride our bikes right to the front door of a school. The youth like seeing our bikes and are always asking us questions about them. We’ll use cars mostly when we are transporting youth or equipment for our programs.”

It’s not the only community-based program caught up in the suspension.

Balazs Zanati, another 14 Division police constable, has spent considerable time working with Hungarian-speaking students at Parkdale Collegiate Institute. Part of the Community Response Unit, Zanati has been a member of the Toronto Police Service for eight years. Previously an officer in the Hungarian Army who served in Afghanistan before emigrating to Canada, Zanati heard reports of Hungarian-Roma students getting into fights and skipping classes, and decided to get involved.

“Hungarian students just don’t want to go to school. There are a few reasons for that: one is they don’t speak the language, the other is they don’t see the value in education where they don’t see their parents getting anywhere in life,” said Zanati. “Their parents didn’t go to school and they think they are not going to be any better than their parents.”

Zanati works with the students to help them realize the importance of getting an education.

“[We’ll play] soccer and then [go] to English class together, where I’ll sit with them and help interpret. I try to tell them they will need education to get a job, and they will be better than their parents.”

Getting the students to trust him was the hard part, he admitted.

“Initially they had issues with [authority], so I started handing out my business cards with my personal cell number written on it. They call me every day, even on my days off, with their personal problems and sometimes it’s police related, often not, and I try to help out.”

Harris had also started a program funded by ProAction Cops & Kids for Harbord students. ProAction is a grant initiative that funds programs that connect police and youth.

“The TDSB suspension of the SRO program has affected that program,” said Harris. “The suspension also prevents us from starting up other ProAction programs that run in the schools.”

It’s all for the same reason: while the suspension remains in effect, 14 Division officers cannot go on to school property without a call for service.

Malik has said that was never the intent of the motion, and she’ll look into it.



EDITORIAL: Don’t sacrifice safety for political gain (August 2017)

EDITORIAL: Student safety suffers as trustees cave (November 2017)

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