Police Out of Toronto Schools, Now!

by Kabir Joshi-Vijayan
Basics #11 (November 2008)

Almost 30 public and Catholic schools around Toronto now have armed cops behind their doors every day.

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair put the project forward after the release of a school safety report (Falconer Report) last January. The Falconer report was written by a panel assigned by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) after killing of Jordan Manners in 2007 inside C.W. Jefferys High School. Referencing the Falconer Report, the Police Chief presented the proposal to TDSB staff, and got the project approved by the school board last June. But of the one hundred different recommendations made by the Falconer report for improving school safety, not one called for putting police officers inside schools – armed or otherwise. The Falconer Report did suggest, however, that school administrators put an end to covering up issues of safety, and to begin an open dialogue and consultation with students and the community. Instead the TDSB did no community consultation on putting police in schools, and letters sent home to parents in September presented the initiative as a done deal, had minimum information about the program and didn’t mention that the cop would be fully armed.

TDSB publicity says that the officers are there to “build trusting relationships with students” with the officers coaching basketball, helping with field trips or participating in school assemblies. As one school principal put it: “It’s about putting a face to the imposing police figure, and after a few encounters, kids no longer see the uniform…” (Or the gun, the taser, the nightstick, the pepper spray and daily harassment?).
But at the same time, other reports from the School Board say that police are there to stop crime and violence, like a hall monitor with deadly weapons and the power of the entire criminal justice system behind him (or her). So while the officer is said to be a “member of the school family” working closely with the school staff and the Principal, the cop also reports directly to his/her police division. One school resource officer at a ward meeting said that besides “getting to know” kids in hallways, part of his “detail” included surveying students at the nearby mall during lunch and at the local Community Centre after school – it was a way to get to “know the characters” and “make sure there were no incidents.” In addition, the cops ultimately answer to the Police Services, and school officials have been unclear about how a case of violence or abuse by the officer would be answered.

So what could possibly go wrong with police and educators working so closely together? Remember the Safe Schools Act and the Zero Tolerance Policy, put in place after Mike Harris’s huge social cuts of the 1990s? That Act gave teachers and principals greater power to suspend and expel students, as well as to involve police in school matters. The outcome was the targeting of black, racialized and poor students who went from being pushed out of school to being locked into the criminal justice system. It took years of frantic complaints by parents, thousands of disenfranchised students and an Ontario Human Rights Commission Report (exposing unfair expulsions and the widespread bigotry of teachers and administrators) before the policy was finally changed in late 2007. The act was renamed the Safe and Caring Schools Act, but the underlying and systematic racism remains. Now, a particular youth being harassed by school administrators can become the target of police, or visa versa. For youth who deal with regular police brutality and violence (and who face harassment from teachers and officials at school), cops in schools are enough of a threat to their comfort and safety that it undermines their motivation to stay in school. Basics has heard reports in the communities where it is operating that students are already dropping out in response to the presence of cops in their schools.

What you should know is that the program is being paid for by Toronto Police Services through its department of “community policing”, which is really about occupation, socially containment, and greater surveillance. These are the motivations for the cops in schools initiative, and its existence is only further justifying soaring police budgets against the backdrop of fading social services budgets, including cuts to education.

To the students, teachers and parents who have noticed that the cop in their respective school is almost never seen, we have to understand that this is just the first few months of the first year of this policy. The Toronto Police Services has said that they aim to expand it, and school boards say that trustees and principles now get to choose to put police in their schools, but the project could become mandatory for all high schools by next year. In other words, it is a critical time for the Toronto Police and School Board to sell this policy to sceptical trustees, principles and parents. Yet a disturbing example of where these programs can lead to is New York, where since the Police Department (NYPD) took control of school safety in 1998, “the number of police personnel in schools and the extent of their activity have skyrocketed”. So that now the NYPD School Safety Division has grown to be the tenth largest police force in the entire US, with an intensifying culture of brutality, racism and violence!

It is exactly because this is the first year of the cops in schools policy, that it is the best time to resist it. Community opposition to the project has already meant there will be no armed police in any Jane and Finch high schools this year, and has helped influence trustees to not let them in Regent Park or Beaches Schools. Youth, parents and teachers in all hoods around Toronto must demand a removal of armed police from their schools, and an immediate end to the cops in schools program – before the brutal Toronto Police force becomes a permanent and constant part of an already racist and repressive school system.

No Cops in Schools!

Contact BASICS at [email protected] if you are interested in becoming involved with the campaign to get police out of our schools.