Mark Saunders is being a schoolyard bully in cops-in-schools fight


Should we have uniformed and armed police officers in our high schools on a full-time basis? 

At its June 15 meeting, the Toronto Police Services Board was scheduled to consider a motion from member Ken Jeffers to “immediately suspend” the School Resource Officer Program (SRO) – the cops-in-schools program – “pending a meeting/consultation with stakeholders.” 

Jeffers demanded the action at the board’s May 23 meeting, following deputations by members of the community and schoolteachers (as well as Black Lives Matter – Toronto) who questioned whether the full-time presence of police officers in high schools contributes to safety or criminalizes students.

But in the end, the board postponed a decision until December, when it will receive a report from police Chief Mark Saunders after extensive consultations with all stakeholders, as recommended by Mayor John Tory. Among the components of the review would be a consideration of “successful alternatives” to the program, “statistics arising out of the present program including historic statistics or incidents in schools, comparative numbers of arrests, charges and escalations,” and “assessments of the overall effectiveness (or not) of the present SRO Program.”

Saunders and the board’s legal counsel had raised questions about whether such an action would constitute interference with police operations, which are supposedly the exclusive jurisdiction of the chief.

It remains to be seen whether Saunders and his allies will use Tory’s motion to derail Jeffers’s demand to suspend the SRO program now that the board has passed the buck to the chief – at least for now. The police chief is a strong supporter of the program

When he was a deputy chief, Saunders tried strenuously to convince me that the presence of police officers in secondary schools “added great value” in terms of developing positive relationships and trust with young people.

I recall asking him to put on the hat of a CEO who must maximize his resources and ask himself if this was the best use of highly trained, highly paid professionals. Why would he not consider alternatives, if the objective was relationship-building and not policing?

The SRO program was introduced in 2008 after the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Manners at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in North York.

Like several other policing strategies, it was borrowed from the U.S., where it was supposedly implemented for safety reasons. But it quickly became notorious stateside following a number of highly publicized incidents of police violence against students.

Though borrowed from the U.S., the program was not introduced unilaterally by the Toronto Police Service. This happened with the concurrence of the school boards. 

Behind this collaboration lies the policy and legislative role of the province, dating back to the 1990s, when the Mike Harris government enacted the Safe Schools Act to enforce a “zero tolerance” policy on student violence. The act in its successive incarnations and companion policies, such as the mandatory Code of Conduct, opened the door to police involvement in Ontario’s schools. The result has been high suspension and expulsion rates among students of colour. Thus the provincial government and school boards, too, bear responsibility for the presence of uniformed and armed police officers in high schools.

It’s no accident that the program happened at the same time the province began to cut education funding.

Before that, ensuring a healthy school climate and dealing with student conduct had been the responsibility of school boards. They employed their own staff to develop youth leadership, train school teams to deal with incidents of bullying and assist teachers and administrators in handling student misconduct. 

When I was the race relations adviser to the former city of Toronto’s Board of Education between 1984 and 89, I had a team of youth program workers who worked with schools to ensure safety and student/teacher leadership. The board had other programs as well, like school-community relations, which fostered partnerships between schools and parents to develop a climate of belonging and shared interest.

Following cuts to education funding, however, those school-based, board-funded programs disappeared. And police entered the picture to fill the perceived void.

What we have now is a formal arrangement mandated by the provincial government between directors of education and police chiefs province-wide. A “Police/School Board Protocol” sets the terms of the relationship. The protocol between the Toronto Police Service and the city’s various school boards (including the Catholic and French boards) is strictly an operational document. This is why the police board was not consulted, much less asked for approval, when the SRO program was established.

Some years ago, a joint committee of representatives of the Ministries of Education, Community Safety and Correctional Services the association of police chiefs revised the protocol. Some of us on the Future of Policing Advisory Committee strenuously tried to amend the document to include a requirement that the protocol would be reported to the school board and the police board. However, these efforts failed. 

Consequently, Ontario’s Provincial Model For A Local Police/School Board Protocol, last revised in 2015, continues to treat the protocol as an operational arrangement. It recommends several “strategies” for police in schools. These include: being visible, being a positive adult role model for students and establishing positive relationships with children and youth.  One of the roles of the police is “assisting in the development of young people’s understanding of good citizenship.”

Aren’t teaching qualities of good citizenship and being a positive adult role model the responsibility of teachers?

The police are now expected to fill the gap, enabled by these provincially mandated protocols.

Despite police claims that the program has a very positive mandate of building relationships and trust, others are convinced that its real purpose is to keep an eye on schools in less affluent neighbourhoods that have many students from racialized communities. They believe the real purpose of the program is intelligence gathering, which is racial profiling in another form.

There are some obvious questions for those concerned about the presence of police in schools, whatever the justification.

Alok Mukherjee served as chair of the Toronto Police Services Board from 2005 to 2015. He is a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University.


Cops in schools: a yardstick

2008 Introduction of School Resource Officer (SRO) program.

30 Police officers initially assigned to SRO program. 

37 Police officers in the SRO program now.

66 Toronto schools with SROs (19 Catholic high schools and 47 public high schools).

55 and 22 Police divisions with most SRO schools (10 each). Officers are placed at the request of schools.

Program’s stated objectives “To improve safety in and around schools, improve perception of police amongst youth in communities, improve the relationship between students and police.”

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