Pencils Down, Hands Up
Illustration: Tasha Levytska
Before November, when the TDSB voted to eliminate the School Resource Officer program from TDSB schools, I wrote a piece examining it in detail. In the article, I detail why the program can be harmful and traumatizing to marginalized young people in schools, as well as overlooked details about the program, such as its relationship with Canada Border Services Agency.
Even though the program is no longer in existence, I asked my editors if I could share this article anyway. There are still school resource officer programs in the TCDSB, other provinces and non-TDSB schools. I was reminded of this fact on Dec. 22.
CBC reported that a Rama Police Service Officer who works on Rama First Nation - about 150 kilometres from Toronto - was charged by the Ontario Provincial Police for assaulting an 11-year old boy at his school. Amongst other things, the police officer gave the boy a concussion. That officer is still active on duty. The mother of this boy asked the same question I posed in the article: do you know what it does to a child when he sees an officer who has or could assault them?
A couple of weeks ago, the _Toronto Star _reported that the police want to discontinue the $80,000 review of the SRO program that is currently being conducted at Ryerson University. Instead, the police propose a discussion about inclusivity with the Chief of Police Mark Saunders, TDSB and TCDSB.
To me, this seems like an attempt to minimize critique of the program. If the program apparently works - as some Toronto police officers claim - and most teens are satisfied with the program - as their surveys reveal - a review shouldn’t be an issue. But, for the police, it is. I wonder if the actual issue is that review will support the reason the SRO program was eliminated in the first place - majority shouldn’t rule or dismiss valid concerns.
That’s why I wanted to share this piece online. There may be young people like that 11-year-old boy who need to know that their feelings are valid. There may be people who want to understand how deep the problems with the SRO program go. There may even be people who don’t know anyone who has been negatively affected by the SRO program. These are the people for whom I am sharing this piece for.
Special thank you to all of my interviewees for your time and patience in speaking with me.
In June 2017, the Toronto Police Services Board hosted a public debate regarding the School Resource Officer (SRO) Program, an initiative that stations uniformed police officers inside Toronto schools. The gathering had more than 200 community members taking part in the eight-hour-long meeting, many wanting to make a deputation — an in-person statement directed at Toronto City Council committees about a particular agenda item — regarding the SRO program. The meeting got a bit chaotic.
One of the attendees waiting to speak was Desmond Cole, a journalist and activist, who described the meeting on his talk show like this:
“Once there were about 200 people in the room (the room capacity)…[police officers] closed the doors…barricading those doors with guns. Many of the people they trapped on the outside of the doors had signed up [to speak] and they were not even allowed to get in the room…if there had been an emergency in that room, what would have happened to those 200 people in that room who the police broke the fire code for so that they could block people they didn’t want to hear from?”
He continued: “A lot of the people who were being critical of all of this stuff…were threatened with arrest. I was threatened with arrest…if this is how they treat grown adults at a public meeting where everybody in the media can see them, what do you think they’re doing to the kids in our schools when you’re not there?”
Not only did those leading the debate not have time for those who disagreed with the value and usefulness of the SRO program, Andrea Vásquez Jiminéz, part of the group Education Not Incarceration (ENI), learned that some members of the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) — teachers, principals and students who specifically supported the SRO program — got special exemptions to leave school and attend the daytime meeting to help amplify encouragement for the program.
In 2011, the Toronto Police Services did an internal review of the SRO Program, where it polled 3,500 students from both the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and the Catholic Board (TCDSB). It highlighted the fact that 56 percent of students said the SRO program contributed to helping them feel safe and made it easier to concentrate on their studies. This would also mean that about 45 percent of those polled didn’t feel this way. When Angela Kennedy, the Trustee Chair of the TCDSB, was asked about that 45 percent during an interview on CBC’s The Current, she said she’s never heard a single negative comment about the SRO Program. Kennedy also maintained that all SRO officers are plain-clothed and unarmed. Yet, according to both Jiminéz and The Globe and Mail, the officers stationed at schools aren’t only in uniform but armed, too.
That’s not the only support-leaning misinformation from a supposedly unbiased source swirling around about the details of the SRO program. The Toronto Star recently published an article about an “independent” study from the Peel Region concluding that the SRO Program “reduces student stress [and] risks of bullying and harm, improves attendance and makes teens feel safer and better able to learn.” However, it was revealed that the report was written by Linda Duxbury and Dr. Craig Bennell of Carleton University, who were “proud to be your [Peel Regional Police] partner in the evaluation of this program…” How can a study meant to evaluate a police program be considered independent when the two lead researchers have a partnership with the police? So, we can see there are voices missing: specifically, a large chunk of people who don’t agree that the program is doing all it’s claiming to do. One particular community whose voices were not only sorely needed at that chaotic debate, but also in these reams of reports, are undocumented students. The SRO Program puts these students in a position to be outed in front of police, which could have very damaging and violent repercussions: it could result in deportation for the students and their families. Because, you see, there’s a law that makes sure undocumented students can’t speak up.
About 10 years ago, the TDSB and the TCDSB adopted a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in terms of a student’s immigration status, meaning all undocumented school-age folks are allowed to access educational services despite their status. But this policy — which is based on provincial law, The Ontario Education Act — does not extend to law enforcement. In 2008, the Toronto Police Service not only rejected adopting this particular exemption into law, wishing instead to uphold the law stating any knowledge of undocumented persons can be reported to immigration, but it was also coincidentally the year the SRO program was born. So the message here is, “hey, if you’re undocumented, you can go to school in Ontario. But you take it as is: no complaints, no trying to help improve the system by including your voice and your experience. You can attend, but you’ve got to shut up.” Not very community minded, is it.
And it gets worse. Since 2011, SROs have been having weekly “Tactical Intelligence Strategy” meetings with several stakeholders, including Canada’s Border Services Agency. According too the 2011 Toronto Police Services Performance Report, the purpose of these meetings is “to share information and dynamically respond to violent crime and weapons within the community.” These meetings are in direct violation of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. So what kind of message does this send? It shows undocumented students that the SRO program isn’t put there chiefly to protect them (as the program claims to exist to protect all students) but rather to enforce the law: a law that doesn’t necessarily consider their protection a priority. And the consequences are real: Education Not Incarceration had to move a student out of school and the entire family out of that neighbourhood because a student’s undocumented immigration status was outed in front of an SRO. It’s frightening to realize that this is Toronto’s idea of safety.
The program doesn’t only exist in Toronto; it’s nationwide. SRO programs exist in several cities, including Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon and the Niagara region. Ottawa, where the program has been in place since at least 2010, states about 350 schools in the city have an SRO. In Saskatoon, SRO programs are in primary and secondary schools, meaning children as young as six are coming into daily contact with the police. In Calgary, it’s been in place since 1976. While there hasn’t been a lot of noise in these cities, one thing is clear: police officers don’t stop becoming police officers just because they are inside schools. The same issues like racial profiling and carding — which is the power of the police to question, collect and document information from people without cause — are brought into schools along with these police officers. Whether these practices take place there or not is less important than the fact that they can. And marginalized students — including those who are Black, undocumented, living with mental illnesses and/or mental disabilities — are put in a position to be afraid all the time because of it.
The SRO program was implemented in Toronto in 2008 following the 2001 murder of Jordan Manners, a 15-year-old student who was shot in the hallway of his school, C.W. Jefferys, one year earlier. It was the first-ever murder in a TDSB school. At the same time, a zero-tolerance, “one size fits all” approach was being enforced in schools to address student bad behaviour. It was enforced by the TDSB, and the systemic discrimination of the policy stems from a place of entitlement and arrogance, and has shown to negatively impact marginalized students such as those living with disabilities or mental health challenges.
Zero-tolerance practices picked up steam under the Safe Schools Act, implemented in Ontario between 2001–08 by the Progressive-Conservative Party. The purpose of the act is “to increase respect and responsibility, to set standards for safe learning and safe teaching in schools.” The Act gave “principals and teachers more authority to suspend and expel students,” according to the Ontario Human Rights Council (OHRC).
In 2009, Jim Rankin of the Toronto Star reported that between 2002–03, the number of students suspended was 157,436: an increase of almost 50,000 from two years earlier. That is a huge jump. And almost one in five of those suspended was identified as having a learning disability or special need. The number of students expelled shot up to 1,786 from 106 in 2000–01, also an incredible jump. In 2013, The TDSB released statistics to the Toronto Star revealing that during the 2006-07 school year, Black students were three times more likely to be suspended at school than white students. Maybe you’re starting to see a trend here.
These statistics were shocking enough for the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) to launch a complaint in 2005 against the TDSB as a response to the immensely negative impact the Safe Schools Act and zero-tolerance policies were having on racialized students and students with disabilities. But when Manners was killed on school property, it ignited a lot of fear that such a thing could happen again. As a result, many schools hastily adopted the recommendations of the Safe School Act.
In 2007, the TDSB hired prominent human rights lawyer Julian Falconer to research and assess school safety in Toronto. The School Community Safety Advisory Panel included Falconer, retired educator Linda MacKinnon and former Jane-Finch community development coordinator Peggy Edwards. While the report noted that there were indeed a lack of necessary school supports — like child and youth workers and social workers — that could have proved vital in avoiding Manners’ death, they also called for the “dismantling of Safe Schools Culture” by eliminating the one-size-fits-all approach to discipline, as the Act implies. But their recommendations didn’t necessarily challenge increased enforcement personnel and what deserves punishment and discipline.
Education Action: Toronto, an organization dedicated to transforming the current education system by improving public school funding, encouraging democracy and developing curriculum, criticized the report for focusing on “external control of what it considers ‘at risk’ children” while setting itself up in opposition to the punitive and oppressive “safe schools culture.” In other words, the report recommends solutions that focus on controlling the behaviour of “at risk” children, like metal detectors and roaming the halls with gun detection dogs, replacing the Safe Schools Act with their own version of overly punitive disciplinary action. Punishing students after they’ve exhibited bad behaviour is too harsh, insists the report. Better to punish them with fear and intimidation. Treat them like they’re already criminals so they wouldn’t dream of actually “acting out.”
While dogs are supposed to be man’s best friend, these kinds of dogs would operate like those drug-sniffing dogs at the airport, randomly sniffing out lockers and backpacks: this could actually violate students’ section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, stating that people are protected from “unreasonable search and seizure.” The panel also recommended the creation of a “Provincial Safety and Equity Officer” in schools who would “be directly responsible for oversight of the province’s school boards in respect of matters of school safety”: a third party to make sure schools are actually following through with these school safety recommendations. There was no mention that they meant for armed and uniformed police officers to fulfill this role.
The TDSB, with approval by then-Police Chief Bill Blair, then implemented the School Resource Officer Program starting with 30 armed police officers assigned to 30 schools, most of which were in designated “priority neighbourhoods”: those identified by United Way and the City of Toronto as low-income communities with “at risk” populations. Many of these communities are in the suburbs where Black, immigrant and marginalized populations live.
Despite these recommendations, it was both the TDSB and TCDSB who had the last word in deciding which schools would receive the SRO Program. According to Alok Mukherjee, former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB), the Ontario directors of education in conjunction with the provincial police (through a mandate they call Police/School Board Protocol) created the SRO Program, going over the heads of the city’s police board and communities. As of 2017, SROs are in 75 schools across Toronto (about 10 percent of schools), most of which have a high Black and brown, newcomer and undocumented student population.
For some students, police cars are the first thing they see when they get to school. It sends a clear message: you may be here to learn, but never forget: you’re always being watched. Dr. Natasha Browne, a Toronto-based psychologist, explains why this can have a profoundly negative effect on some students, especially those who come from communities frequently targeted by police.
“When you have an authority figure in a learning environment, who, for our youth, has been a symbol of trauma, abuse of power and fear, it can evoke symptoms within the youth that may hinder their ability to succeed,” says Dr. Browne. She explains that negative behaviour can be a result of this fear, like increased anger, social withdrawal or a reduction of self-esteem and self worth. When these crappy and sometimes destructive feelings pop up, students might use coping strategies like skipping school or numbing the fear and bad feelings with drug and alcohol. Things that society might say are “bad,” but could be used as extreme measures to survive the fear. If kids feel targeted instead of protected, says Dr. Browne, they’ll disengage and possibly become indifferent to their education or future path. “You’ll lose them,” she says.
Cara*, a student of Downsview Secondary School in Toronto, says she believes that SROs are unnecessary. “It’s unfair: school is supposed to be a place where [we] come to learn and be safe but that can’t happen if [students] constantly have to look over their shoulders,” she says. “I’ve noticed that whenever the resource officer was around, the Black boys felt the need to pull up their pants or straighten their backs.”
Observations like that one speak volumes to the way Black students are perceived in schools: as students needing correction by force. A new report by York University shows that between 2011–2012 and 2015–2016, 307 students have been expelled, and 48 percent of them were Black. Black students are being sent racist messaging: that they deserve to be closely monitored, and that what they’re doing and how they’re behaving is categorically wrong. It’s their fault and they’ll be punished for it. For whose safety and protection, exactly?
Silvia A. Arauz of the Afro-Latin-American Abya Yala Education Network (LAEN), which is, among other things, dedicated to removing cops from schools, shared a disturbing story that demonstrates how the SRO Program allows for young marginalized students to be known to the police at an early age.
In December of 2016, Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) student James Cardinal McGuigan was walking next to his school when cops aggressively arrested him and his three friends because they “fit the description of a suspect.” This young man was terrified as several police cars surrounded him and his friends. He explains that when he tried to communicate to the officers that he was just walking home, an officer grabbed his hand and twisted him around screaming, “Don’t you ever f***king raise your hand to me again.”
The student was arrested and taunted as officers searched the database for his name. He wasn’t there, as this young man has never been in trouble with the law before and up until that moment, was never entered into the database. The police released him that day without informing him of how his information would be managed, now that it was entered in the database, and to date they have not called his parents or school to discuss his arrest.
Again, who is being protected here? The school-to-prison pipeline —how schools treat misbehaving as a crime which can push kids out of school and potentially lead them to getting into real trouble with the criminal justice system — gives us an idea of who isn’t being protected.
“People are starting to talk about schools actually being carceral spaces,” says Leroi Newbold of Black Lives Matter Toronto. “For Black youth, it can sometimes feel like being incarcerated.”
And it’s starting so young. There was a story of a six-year-old Black girl who was handcuffed at the wrists and ankles in Mississauga by the Peel Regional Police in September 2016. Allegedly, the girl was “kicking and punching” school administrators, according to a CBC interview with the child’s mother. Instead of de-escalating the situation, the immediate response was to call the police on the six-year old. “There’s nothing a 48-pound, six-year-old girl could’ve done,” the mother told CBC. Why did the school call the police on a six-year-old girl?
De-escalation techniques like mindfulness — the act of being present and mindful of emotions — verbally slowing down situations in an effort to calm temperaments, teaching young people to shift out of fight or flight mode in tense situations and trauma-informed responses — which recognize that some behaviours may be linked to previously induced trauma experiences — have all been proven to work. In Chicago, for example, there is a young men’s after-school program called Becoming A Man (BAM), and through simple activities like expressing their feelings with words and discussions about integrity, they learn social-emotional skills, mindfulness and how to respond instead of simply react when they find themselves in tense situations. The program has reduced the violent crime arrests of participants by 44 percent.
“When individuals believe that they have limited options they resort to behaviours that they believe will pacify the ‘perceived threat’ quickly,” says Dr. Browne. In other words, when people think they don’t have a lot of options to solve a problem, they’ll pick the one that they think will solve the problem the fastest, which can sometimes be the most extreme option, like major disruptions or violence.
What if community-led counselling and workshops like BAM were the first available options to students instead of police officers telling them to stand down? And police officers don’t engage in the rigorous training required by educators, social workers and guidance counsellors before they are allowed to work with children. Skills and training such as understanding the developmental stages of young people, active listening, strength-based approaches, being aware of students’ triggers and self-awareness are key concepts that police officers aren’t required to know in order to work with kids. Police are trained to treat escalated interactions with civilians as if they are subduing a possible crime or misdemeanour. Police are taught that when they’re in a disagreement or confrontation, they’re the “good guys” because they’re the law. Isn’t it scary that their power and authority are what give them permission to believe this and act this way? It sets the tone for institutionalizing learning environments.
Even if students have had positive interactions with SROs, that doesn’t override the systemic impact of the Toronto Police Service. The media has overwhelmed us with numerous stories about police officers making positive impacts on students. CBC, for example, interviewed SRO Peter de Quintal, who believes that he couldn’t possibly be intimidating because he does a Star Wars-themed breakfast program and Bike Rodeo, a bike riding 101 program he leads at his assigned school.
But fun activities can’t erase what Dr. Browne calls “historical and systemic generational trauma.” In other words, a self-proclaimed “good” individual police officer doesn’t change the fact that the TPS represents a system of oppression that deeply impacts the daily lives of marginalized people. For instance, LGBTQ communities have historically been subject to violence, homophobia and transphobia by police. This is why BLM-TO’s successful advocacy to ban police officers from Pride the 2016 Festival was so important, despite its heavy backlash. It brought attention to how individual police officers, when in uniform, represent the system of the TPS, and the TPS represents a system of oppression that poses a safety threat to marginalized LGBTQ communities.
So, de Quintal’s comments about not being intimidating miss the point about systemic oppression, by focusing on and generalizing his individual activities. Indirectly telling students that their negative experiences with police officers in schools aren’t real is yet another aggression: telling these students that their well-being and education doesn’t matter as much as their obedience.
Leroi Newbold predicts what may be next in the SRO Program by using the case of Trayvon Martin, a young Black boy shot in Florida in 2012 by George Zimmerman. SRO is a program they also have in the state of Florida. The “Stand Your Ground” defense was used in Florida when Trayvon Martin was killed. “Stand Your Ground” basically means George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin because he believed he was threatened enough to shoot a 17-year-old unarmed child.
Part of the defense that was used to justify the killing of Trayvon Martin was the fact that he was known to police. And how he was known to police — despite the fact that he had never been convicted of committing a crime — was through the SRO Program. Travyon Martin was serving a suspension at the time he was killed and that was repeatedly brought up in the courts in terms of painting a picture of him as a dangerous youth.
The reason that picture was painted was because of the policing and the surveillance in his school and his neighbourhood. This is one of the big risks that happens with our youth: they’re constantly being surveilled, information is constantly being collected about them, there’s a chance that they’re being questioned by police as minors without the presence of their parents or of lawyers, and there’s a profile being built around them that’s criminalizing them, letting them be seen as dangerous, when they’re just kids.
The SRO Program treats young marginalized students as kids that are supposed to have it all figured out. The program creates a culture of fear and silence, jeopardizing the learning environments of students and negatively impacting the mental health and well-being of students for the sake of maintaining order and control, often through violations of TDSB policies. It forces children to police themselves because of this fear. It tells children that they deserve to be known to the police because of how the police discriminately perceive who is and should be considered dangerous. What is needed is for the school boards, the police boards, the city councils and supporters of the SRO Program to make space for all young people with very valid concerns about their own safety, because their voices matter.
*Last name omitted for anonymity