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

September 13th, 2017 · No Comments

The deeply divisive debate on whether or not the Toronto Police Service (TPS) should continue the School Resource Officer (SRO) program reveals fault lines among those responsible for ensuring that secondary education be conducted in a safe, supportive environment. Under the program, thirty-six police officers are assigned to work in Toronto’s public and Catholic high schools.

In June, a group including Black Lives Matter, Education-Not-Incarceration, Latinx and the Afro-Latin-Amercia Abya Yala Education Network presented a petition to the TPS Board calling for the immediate cessation of the program, and in response, the TPS Board in August ordered an independent study on the program. A few days later, in a seeming rebuke of this strategy, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) suddenly voted to cancel it.

The trustees who voted for cancellation said it was impossible to conduct a study while the police where still in the schools. The chair of the Toronto Catholic District School Board for whom the program also applies, wrote “how important the program is to fostering safe and acceptable learning environments”. The mayor, ever measured, said he wants to “wait for the facts” from the study before entering the fray of public opinion. And the premier, ever dithering, and apparently not sure where the bandwagon is headed, offered her support for all sides.

In opposing the program, critics have been loud on rhetoric but light on facts. These groups have said that they speak for the marginalized youth who have become victims of the hostile presence of armed police officers. Further, they have argued that the police have effectively become stooges of the federal government by demanding citizenship papers from students that appear to be immigrants. They have also argued that, paradoxically, the previously safe schools have become dangerous places because of the police presence and that effectively, the SRO program is a pipeline to prison for racialized high school students.

It’s a lot of loaded language, and the police services board has responded by requesting an academic study to determine whether such claims are supported by facts. As it happens, Dr. Linda Duxbury of Carleton University has conducted an academic study for the Peel Regional Police. Serving Mississauga, its Neighbourhood Policing Unit (NPU) has ten officers in five high schools. Duxbury interviewed 1300 students in grades 9 and 10 with surprising results.

Overwhelmingly, students answered yes to the question “Do the police protect me and can they be relied upon to come to my aid?” In response to the question, “Are the police as a group a racist organization?” the students answered “yes”. And “Are the police officers in the school racist?” the students say “no”. Mostly, the students report feeling safer, more likely to play on a sports team, less likely to be bullied a higher desire to not skip school with the NPU present.

Duxbury says she was “stunned at how positive the impact was and how much time and energy is being spent on proactive policing, essentially stopping issues before they arise”. Despite the TPS budget woes, Toronto’s SRO program puts precious resources where it matters most. Emphasizing prevention the program allows police officers to form relationships in neighbourhoods where breaking down barriers is key.The Duxbury report also found that students were more likely to report incidents of domestic violence, other serious crimes, and their own mental health concerns, to an officer with whom they had developed a trusting relationship.

The TDSB trustee decision to suspend the SRO program abruptly without even consulting with its own leadership or the students is reckless and sacrifices the safety of the learning environment for political convenience.

The TPS decision to invite an independent academic review is warranted but the groups that have been so militant in their badgering don’t want the study, because they are wary of facts. Perhaps they should be as they appear to have none of their own.



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