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Although a majority of survey respondents had “a generally positive impression of the program” and many others had no opinion, the review expressed “significant concern” about the thousands of youth who said the presence of police officers in their schools made them feel uncomfortable, intimidated and targeted.
“Over the course of this review, we have heard from thousands of individual students who told us that the presence of an SRO within their school has made them feel less safe, less welcome and less engaged in learning,” said the report, which is subject to approval by trustees, who will vote on it this month.
Board staff have “a clear duty” to address those concerns and “mitigate against the differentiated and discriminatory impact of the SRO program as described to us by our students and communities.”
That conclusion was welcomed by Black Lives Matter, which led the fight against placing officers in schools, citing detrimental effects on Black youth and other students.
“This has given us a sense of optimism and corroborates the things folks in the community have been saying for a while,” said spokesperson Rodney Diverlus.
The recommendation is “in line with our demands,” he said, adding he commends the TDSB for its leadership in giving all students a safe platform in a debate that has for too long been dominated by adults.
The number of kids expressing discomfort or distress was “quite sobering,” trustee Marit Stiles said Saturday. And despite mixed reviews overall, their voices must be given “extra weight” as the board votes on the future of the program, she added.
“That’s why we did this review, because we wanted to provide an opportunity and safe spaces for people to provide all of their opinions,” said Stiles, chair of the trustee committee that will review the report on Wednesday. She expects to hear from more members of the public who feel strongly about the SRO program.
While some of the board’s 22 trustees have voiced support for the program, Stiles said the report stresses the importance of continuing to collaborate with police, which means schools will have other options for involvement with community officers.
Even those who say they’ve seen the positive effect of the program said the student surveys were troubling. Trustee Chris Glover has often cited examples in his ward of officers playing a preventive role and supporting youth by helping them find jobs and coaching sports teams.
“However, it’s pretty clear from the research that the program has unintentional results,” he said in an interview. “With those (high) numbers of students feeling uncomfortable, we can’t continue the program.”
Glover said he will vote in favour of discontinuing it but he hopes efforts to build relationships between youth and police will continue in other forms.
Mayor John Tory said in a statement that polarized views about the SRO program convinced him to vote for “a rigorous review” last summer in his role as member of the police board.
“It is unfortunate that process was not allowed to be completed so that everyone’s views could be heard and objectively considered.”
Last year, officers were assigned to 45 of the TDSB’s 112 high schools through the school resource officer program, which is operated by Toronto Police Services in both the public and Catholic boards. In most cases, officers divided their duties between several neighbourhood schools and, sometimes, both boards. The program continues to operate in about two-thirds of the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s secondary schools.
“It is important to note that the primary goal of this review has been to capture and centre the voices of those students, families and communities who have traditionally been excluded, marginalized and discounted,” the 24-page TDSB report said.
And because many cited negative effects from the program and favoured alternatives such as more trained social workers and youth counsellors in schools, staff concluded the regular police presence should end.
However, the review also recommends staff continue to collaborate with police “to maintain positive working relationships that will ensure a safe, welcoming and inclusive culture in every school.”
The priority was to put the student perspective front and centre, said TDSB director John Malloy.
So “in the spirit of trying to ensure safety for all students, and recognizing that some students do not feel OK about this program,” the recommendation was to discontinue placing officers in schools.
While 57 per cent who responded to the survey said having police in school made them feel safer, 46 per cent said they weren’t sure they wanted the program to continue. But 1,715 said the presence of an officer intimidated them and 2,207 said they felt watched and targeted as a result.
The school resource officer program, launched in 2007 following the school shooting death of C.W. Jefferys Collegiate student Jordan Manners, has been at the centre of angry debates and protests at Toronto Police Services Board meetings since last spring when groups including Black Lives Matter, Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network (LAEN), and Education Not Incarceration called on the police to disband it.
They argued the program unfairly focused on schools with large populations of Black and other racialized students, leaving them feeling surveilled and harassed, and has also left undocumented students feeling at risk even though they have a legal right to education. In June — after an explosive meeting that included hours of deputations from people against the program, as well as from others who argued SRO presence improves school safety and creates positive relationships between police and youth — the police board deferred a decision on whether to suspend it until year-end, after a full report had been conducted. Then in August, it announced plans for a year-long independent review by Ryerson University.
Amid the storm, the TDSB decided to conduct its own review and on Aug. 31, the board suspended the SRO program for the fall pending the outcome and “to allow for open and unbiased input.”
Some of those who campaigned against the program welcomed news of the TDSB recommendations and commended the board for prioritizing feedback from students who routinely feel their views aren’t considered.
“We are extremely glad they held youth-only spaces where students can feel safer in speaking out about their experiences with SROs,” said LAEN co-chair Andrea Vasquez Jimenez.