As the celestially named but hard-nosed pragmatist Reverend Sky Starr put it yesterday, up in the Jane-Finch area in northwest Toronto, the kids run from the police because they're afraid; the police see them running and believe they must have done something bad.
Rev. Starr didn't say this part, but depending on the day, either side has a good chance of being right: In few other parts of the city is the chasm between police and those they police so big.
It is into three high schools in this impoverished, neglected, beleaguered and battered part of the city that the Toronto District School Board plans to send uniformed, armed Toronto Police officers as "school resource officers" or SROs, part of the expansion of an existing program that has worked beautifully elsewhere.
After initial reluctance, the plan was apparently okayed by the area trustee, Stephnie Payne, last spring in the wake of a stabbing at one of the schools, C.W. Jefferys, already notorious because 15-year-old Jordan Manners died there in a hallway, shot to death in his own school, on May 23, 2007. On the heels of the later stabbing, Jefferys' staff apparently wanted an officer, and either Ms. Payne said the other two schools were also interested or that was the impression she left (she is out of the country and was unavailable for clarification yesterday).
But Rev. Starr was also at an earlier so-called consultation meeting in November of 2008 with area parents and youths, and as co-chair of Westview Centennial Secondary School's parent council, she let the kids speak. "And they were eloquent," she said, "and they presented options - more hall monitors, social workers. They said, 'We do not trust the police.' School was the one place they feel they aren't targeted, harassed, profiled."
(Actually, that may not be entirely true, according to the surveys done by lawyer Julian Falconer's School Community Safety Advisory Panel, a clunker of a name for the three-member group which looked into school safety after Jordan's death. The panel commissioned surveys of students at both Jefferys and Westview and found that a high proportion believe racial discrimination is a serious problem within the schools.)
In any case, the overwhelming view out of the fall meeting from Westview students was that they didn't want police in their school, Rev. Starr said, so when the project was approved anyway last spring, people were furious. "You can't ask for their opinion and then ignore it ... that's not respectful or courteous."
Thus, just days before school started up again this week, there was a protest and a petition, now with almost 500 signatures, and the future of the project, always controversial in this part of town, is somewhat up in the air. Rev. Starr said that she has been assured by officials with the Toronto District School Board that it will be "scaled back," and Donna Quan, the executive superintendent for the area, confirmed yesterday that the officer will be slowly introduced to the school.
The press reports of this dissent, according to board chair John Campbell, are "the first I've heard something was awry" with the plan. He said the SRO program has been well received in the 22 schools where it's established, two of which are in his ward. "My understanding is that there were no hiccups," he said of the expansion plan, and that it would be "surprising and disappointing" if the Jane-Finch schools don't sign up.
The theory is that instead of having a situation where police come to a school only when there's trouble, the SRO would be there every day, with the resulting relationship between student and police less confrontational and more normal.
But Westview (and Jefferys) are, if hardly unique, among the city's most troubled schools: Mr. Falconer, in his report of last year, wrote at length of their culture of fear and violence.
At Westview, for instance, one of every five students felt unsafe at school; 40 per cent reported they had been threatened with physical harm, 15 per cent with a weapon; many admitted seeing guns and knives within the school (20 students even admitted bringing a gun to school) - and as alarming as any of that, fully 80 per cent of student respondents at both Westview and Jefferys said they wouldn't report a crime, even against themselves, to either police or school officials.
Pretty clearly, the students at these schools who want to learn - and my guess is that would be most of them - are deserving of protection.
But the relationship with 31 Division - the station is within minutes of the school - is strained and filled with mistrust. Rev. Starr said one of the students' main issues is that the SROs are fully armed, in uniform; this is something Toronto Chief Bill Blair insists upon. "If the kids are saying no," she said, "hear what they're saying." Rev. Starr was in the papers again yesterday, asking for a crosswalk - her point less about the crosswalk and more that parents and students have been asking for one for almost a decade, but to no avail.
"We're not saying no" flatly to the SRO idea, she said. "But it shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all program."
According to the Learning Opportunities Index of 2008, published every other year by the Toronto board as a measure of a school's challenges, "all of the schools in the Jane-Finch community" fare poorly, but "Westview has ranked neediest for six of the past eight years."
The school, in other words, needs more hall monitors, more social workers, more of everything (and none of this, Rev. Starr said, has been forthcoming since the Falconer report). Almost certainly Westview also needs a police officer in its midst. But if, as Mr. Falconer wrote, troubled students can't be "punished/suspended" into becoming engaged, neither can they be forced to embrace a cop in the halls. Getting one in there, accepted, is worth whatever effort or compromise it takes.