Cops in schools: why Peel should follow Toronto and end program

Community activists call on Peel region to end its school resource officer program, questioning a new report that says cops in schools make students feel safer

Community organizations in the Peel Region are asking school administrators and the Peel police to follow the lead of the Toronto District School Board and discontinue its cops-in-schools program.

Ranjit Khatkur, chair of the Peel Coalition Against Racialized Discrimination (P-CARD), told the Peel Police Services Board at its meeting March 23 that Peel police require “anti-oppression and anti-racism frameworks in its policy, practices and operations… that listens to and values the community voice.”

At issue for P-CARD is a new report that posits that high school students in Peel region feel safer with cops in schools, despite the fact that police relations with its diverse residents, 57 per cent of whom identify as visible minorities, have been undermined after numerous examples of racism and misconduct in the force.

The three-year Carleton University study, Assigning Value To Peel Regional Police’s School Resource Officer Program, was undertaken to assess the “social return on investment” of the $9 million per year program that puts armed officers, also known as School Resource Officers (SRO), in secondary schools across the Peel District School Board and the Dufferin Peel Catholic District School Board.

Among the report’s findings, which relied on input from a 19-member steering committee made up mostly of Peel Regional police, is the assertion that information- and intelligence-gathering within Peel schools through the SRO program contribute to developing positive relationships with students and administrators.

Previous studies, however, have shown that those same policing activities negatively and disproportionately affect marginalized and racialized students. At issue for community organizers is the Carleton report’s failure to take those experiences into account.

Sprott School of Business professor Linda Duxbury, a co-author of the Carleton report, says her mandate wasn’t to look “at marginalized communities and how they respond to the police.”

She tells NOW that the aim of the report “was to say here’s what the SROs state what they do: they provide a safe learning environment.”

The report, whose findings relied on interviews with 23 officers assigned to schools, 11 police supervisors and 44 school administrators, also surveyed 655 grade 9 students from five high schools in Peel. However, only one in four of those surveyed identified as a visible minority.

During last month’s deputations to the Peel police board, Andrea Vásquez Jiménez, co-director of Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network (LAEN), pointed to research, such as the United Way and FACES of Peel’s 2015 Fighting An Uphill Battle report, that identified police in schools as a factor that contributes to the feelings of isolation of Black males in the region’s schools. Similarly, the Peel District School Board’s own 2016 report, We Rise Together, seeks to “identify, understand, minimize and eliminate the marginalization experienced by Black males.”

But it’s not just visible minority students who are being negatively affected by the SRO program. Organizers at last month’s deputations argued that the Peel board should be studying how police in schools impact other marginalized communities, such as LGBTQ, Indigenous, South Asian and students with precarious immigration status, especially since Peel doesn’t have a sanctuary city policy.

As part of its capacity-building efforts in Peel, LAEN has been holding a series of information sessions on Peel’s SRO program. The sessions, in part, have been working with different communities to reimagine how the $9 million currently spent on the SRO program could be reallocated.

Vásquez Jiménez says “a range of amazing things” have come out of that discussion, including replacing police with mental health and wellness crisis teams, guidance counselors, teaching assistants as well as elders to work with marginalized students.

Sarah Sweis, a 12th grader at TL Kennedy Secondary School, tells NOW that she experienced “constant fear” every time she interacted with the SRO, and agrees schools need to invest more in mental health services to ensure student well-being.

“Having one social worker to accommodate over a thousand students isn’t acceptable,” she says. “It’s also not accessible.”

Interestingly, about half of the high school administrators interviewed in the Carleton study identified student mental health concerns as a major challenge within their school.

Recently, Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne announced $2.1 billion in new funding for mental health initiatives. Under the plan, secondary schools will have access to additional mental health professionals. In a related initiative, the Toronto Board of Health passed a motion last month to take a public health approach to address the physical and mental health impacts of community violence.

“When children are exposed to violence in the community, it comes with them into the classroom,” says TDSB teacher and Urban Alliance on Race Relations president Nigel Barriffe. “I do believe in adopting more of a health lens versus the punitive approach. Right now, it’s more reactive and the first person called is the police.”

Barriffe adds, “If we actually had teams of school-based, health-care providers that build relationships and understand the issues that are going on in the community, we could provide pro-active and preventative care.” | @missrattan

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