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Students evacuate La Cite school as members of the Ottawa Police Service respond during an incident on Dec. 2.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Police stationed in Canadian public schools is a policy failure, any way you look at it. Their presence indicates that something has broken down – in the school community, in the wider community or in the home – such that uniformed officers are necessary to try to maintain stability in educational environments.

No one wants them there, mind you; I think most people would agree that schools should be safe enough that minor disputes could be resolved by educational staff. But in the real world, vice principals will often find that gang activity, for example, is not deterred by wielding their masters of education diplomas or mediation tools learned in afternoon seminars. They may also try shaking their ties in disapproval at drug dealers, but alas, that tactic seems to have limited effect.

The question of whether police in public schools, which are called “school resource officers” or SROs, provide more benefit than harm is of renewed interest particularly in Toronto after students staged a walkout to protest the “deplorable” conditions at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in the city’s west end. The school has been in crisis since the beginning of the year, following its merger with nearby George Harvey Collegiate Institute after a fire that broke out at York Memorial in 2019.

The consequences of throwing together these two student bodies – which notably, have experienced rivalries for years – were not exactly unforeseeable: there have been fights, alleged incidents of harassment and intimidation, suspected drug dealing and even a “jump list” of teachers being targeted, according to documents compiled by the Ministry of Labour. (Some students have disputed these allegations, telling Toronto magazine The Local that the jump list, for example, was actually a list of teachers who have said racist things.)

Conditions in the school became so dire back in October that more than a dozen staff members at the school, including the principal, refused to go to work. Some changes have been made since then, including basic safety improvements such as working phones in classrooms and locks on doors, as well as the assignment of new senior staff who will start in the new year. But some parents – of students at York Memorial, as well as other Toronto schools that have seen acts of violence this year – nevertheless want to see SROs back in schools.

The SRO program was introduced by the Toronto District School Board in 2008, the year after Grade 9 student Jordan Manners was shot and killed in a Toronto school. It was abolished nearly a decade later following complaints from activists that Black and Indigenous students were being disproportionately targeted and felt intimidated by uniformed officers in schools.

Since then, the status of various SRO programs across Canada has been in flux. Vancouver plans to reinstate its program in the coming months after removing police from schools last year. Edmonton paused its SRO program in public schools in 2020 to review its efficacy and effects on marginalized students. Winnipeg removed police from its schools in 2021, but in that case, the decision was ”solely for financial reasons,” according to the school board.

The effectiveness of placing officers in schools in terms of actually deterring violence is hard to measure, though polling shows the majority of students feel safer with police in schools; a three-year study from Carleton University, for example, found that students in the Peel, Ont., school board felt more secure at school and had better attendance records when police were stationed in their schools. However, that study was criticized for being limited in scope (only surveying Grade 9 students), and for polling a group of respondents who did not accurately reflect the diversity of the student body. Some data from the U.S. indicate that the presence of SROs may reduce certain forms of violence in schools (though notably, not school shootings), but many also note their role in facilitating so-called school-to-prison pipelines, whereby the presence of police is correlated with increased rates of suspensions, expulsions and criminal charges.

It is fair to say, then, that SROs offer an imperfect solution to a complex set of problems – problems that, ideally, would be best addressed with enhanced community resources, mental health supports, recreational programs and other nonpunitive interventions. But those sorts of initiatives can take years to produce results, time that students who are just trying to get through high school safely don’t have. The temporary placement of officers at schools in crisis could offer a bridge to get staff and students back in class while the board works on more permanent, less fraught solutions. Critics might still worry about a negative impact on the school environment, but there’s no environment to negatively impact if staff and students are walking out of class.