by Shafiqullah Aziz
Students, parents, teachers, and community organizers are celebrating after trustees of the Toronto District School Board voted to end the School Resource Officer program, which stationed Toronto police in high schools. The November 22 vote to end the program comes after months of community consultations and organizing efforts from multiple groups expressing concern that the program put high school students at risk.
The School Resource Officer (SRO) program first began in September 2008 when police officers were placed in 20 Toronto District School Board (TDSB) high schools and 10 Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) high schools. It expanded to approximately 45 SROs serving in high schools across both boards by 2016.
Emotions ran high after the trustees voted to approve the recommendation from TDSB staff to discontinue the SRO program. The recommendation comes after years of work by community activists throughout the city, who have been advocating for an end to the SRO program since its inception.
“It’s been a long road,” said Sabrina ‘Butterfly’ Gopaul, an organizer with Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty (JFAAP). “All of the actions, press conferences, meetings and events, responses from raids…now that the program is over, things will be different.”
Education Not Incarceration (ENI), a community organization, challenged the SRO programs on the basis that the presence of police in schools criminalizes young people and creates a culture of fear and intimidation.
“This is an important step toward ending the criminalization and surveillance of racialized youth and dismantling the Canadian school-to-prison pipeline. This decision comes in response to a decade of calls from students, parents, educators, researchers, and community organizations to terminate this harmful program,” said Gita Rao Madan, a member of ENI.
ENI worked alongside the Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network (LAEN), JFAAP, and Black Lives Matter – Toronto to present deputations earlier this year at the Toronto Police Services Board meetings in May and June. The groups continued to work together to apply pressure on the TDSB to dismantle the SRO program.
As a result of these interventions, over the summer, the TDSB initiated a review process of the SRO program and suspended police from returning in the new school year while the review was being conducted with students, parents, and staff.
On November 15, the TDSB released the School Resource Officer Program Review, recommending that the program be immediately discontinued. The review detailed thousands of students who expressed feeling intimidated, watched, and targeted by the SROs.
“The presence of SROs immediately puts fear into my children, who have never seen Toronto police in a positive light or there to help them,” said Tara Reilly, a parent of two students at Earl Haig Secondary School. “My daughter has never felt that the police have been helpful and that they have just made problems worse.”
As part of the review, the TDSB conducted eight community consultations in October in neighbourhoods across the city. The community consultations revealed an almost unanimous position that social workers, child and youth counsellors, and hall monitors were far better positioned to ensure the safety and security of students than SROs.
“I think that the impact of SROs has been differentiated,” said Jim Spyropoulos, an Executive Superintendent of the TDSB. “We’ve heard of students that absolutely don’t feel comfortable with the presence of that uniform. We’ve heard of students who, in fact, may not feel comfortable attending school. We feel the impact of students from communities that are already over-policed, who are criminalized, and who feel as though when that police officer is in school, when that uniform is in school, when that gun is in school, it just creates a type of anxiety that is not conducive to students’ learning.”
The TDSB’s response to the community’s protest of SROs is a sharp contrast to the TCDSB, which has not initiated any review process and maintains the program in Catholic high schools across the city. “It is imperative of other school boards across the province to follow the lead of the TDSB”, said Madan.
Many expressed praise for the TDSB’s move to recommend an end to the SRO program. Andrea Vásquez Jiménez, an organizer with LAEN said “I’m definitely proud of TDSB. They have taken a bold stand by making this historical decision, which sets a precedent in regards to enhancing equity by centering our most marginalized students’ voices.”
The end of the SRO program in the TDSB is a result of years of community activism and organizing work that peaked over the summer. The collaboration of multiple organizations ensured that a diversity of student voices were represented in the process and that the experiences of youth who have been subject to police brutality, targeting, and harassment were highlighted.