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Review by Toronto board calls for cancellation of police-in-schools program

A Toronto Police badge.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

A review of a controversial program that placed armed Toronto police officers in some schools is recommending that the practice be scrapped because too many students felt targeted for discrimination.

The School Resource Officer program at the Toronto District School Board was temporarily suspended by trustees in August to await the results of the internal examination, which will be discussed on Wednesday at a meeting of the 11-member planning and priorities committee.

Introduced a decade ago after the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Manners, the program saw uniformed police officers patrol the hallways of 45 Toronto public high schools last school year. The practice came under scrutiny after several activist groups, composed of parents, community members and educators, argued in the spring that the police program was making classrooms intimidating spaces for racialized, undocumented and Indigenous children and contributing to a school-to-prison pipeline.

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John Malloy, director of education for the school board, which is the country's largest, said "student voice was our most important consideration" in the review.

To capture that voice and the input of others, surveys were done with about 15,500 students, 1,062 staff and 475 parents from the schools where police officers were based last year. Meetings were also held with students and community members.

The data collected revealed mixed feelings about the impact of the School Resource Officer program, states a 24-page report on the review. While a majority of respondents had an overall positive impression of the program, significant concerns were raised by many students – which prompted the recommendation for abolishment.

The survey showed that 1,715 students said the presence of police in their school intimidated them and 2,207 students noted that they felt as if they were under surveillance or being targeted at school.

In discussions with students, many voiced concern that police officers were collecting personal information on them that could later be used against them or their friends. In some cases, students said they were staying away from school because of the police presence.

Students weren't the only ones to express complaints about the program. Nearly 160 of the 1,062 staff surveyed said they felt uncomfortable interacting with officers at their school and 9 per cent of parents who responded said the program made them feel as if their child was being watched or targeted.

A majority of parents (76 per cent), however, said they felt having a police officer in their child's school made it a safer place, and nearly 60 per cent of students also said the police presence made them feel safer.

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While the staff review is calling for the program's end, it is also recommending that the TDSB's 584 schools maintain a positive relationship with the Toronto Police Service.

"We will continue to collaborate with police," Mr. Malloy said. "Because we have models in place that are different than this program in other schools that seem to work as well, we felt as a staff it was important to honour the voices of those who felt either threatened by police or felt that it harmed them in some way."

Marit Stiles, the trustee for Davenport and a member of the planning and priorities committee, said she's pleased that so many students, parents and staff participated in the review.

"What was really informative and I guess troubling was the response from the students directly and the large number of students who do feel that their relationship with the police is compromised," Ms. Stiles said. "If we have that many students in our system feeling in any way intimidated by the presence of armed police officers in our schools, I think we need to take that very seriously."

Ms. Stiles said she will consider all points raised at Wednesday's meeting, but, as of now, intends to vote in favour of the staff`s recommendations.

So does Chris Moise, who is the trustee for Toronto Centre-Rosedale and vice-chair of the planning and priorities committee. The entire board of trustees will consider the issue on Nov. 22.

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During community consultations, Mr. Moise said he was overwhelmed by the turnout from parents and students who were strongly opposed to officers in schools.

At a consultation in the neighbourhood of Regent Park, Mr. Moise was particularly struck by one young black man's story. In a packed room of more than 300 people, the young man said his life's path had changed as a result of being harassed by a police officer at his school. He told the crowd that he didn't feel safe attending classes, began using marijuana to deal with his stress and anxiety, and eventually was charged with robbery.

"For me, his story just symbolizes so many stories of black kids," said Mr. Moise, who is also black. "We're responsible for all students, not just the majority. If 10 per cent of our population is unsatisfied or feel unsafe in our schools, that is an issue."

The Toronto Police Services Board has also ordered a review of the School Resource Officer program. The assessment is being done by Ryerson University.

Abbotsford police Chief Bob Rich says Const. John Davidson was dedicated to helping young people in the B.C. community. Davidson was killed in the line of duty on Monday after an exchange of gunfire. The Canadian Press
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