It's a rare day that a fight breaks out among teens and no one busts out their phone to film it. But things were different at Isiah Lea's high school. No WorldstarHipHop upload was worth catching the attention of the school resource officer (SRO), a uniformed cop assigned to patrol the halls. Even the students sparring would be looking over their shoulder. Best case, they'd be caught by a teacher, who would send them to the office; an SRO, on the other hand, might put them up against a locker and arrest them right there in the hallway.
Mr. Lea, who is black, said that going to school with the SRO brought the anxieties of his Jane and Finch neighbourhood into the classroom every single day.
"Youth [were] peeking around the corner to see if there were officers around," recalls Mr. Lea, now a 22-year-old artist and community organizer. "Or students [were] just not going to school altogether because their family was in a [bad] situation and selling weed and they didn't want to have anything to do with that."
The Toronto District School Board's SRO program has been in place for 10 years but only became a flashpoint for serious debate this spring after many activist groups, composed of parents, community members and educators, argued that it was making classrooms intimidating spaces for racialized, undocumented and Indigenous kids and contributing to a school-to-prison pipeline.
In late August, the TDSB voted to temporarily suspend its program pending an internal review. In addition to distributing surveys to its students, this past week, the school board kicked off a series of community consultations. The public dialogue has put a spotlight on other GTA boards, some of which have hosted police in their schools for decades with little scrutiny. While the scope and scale of these programs differ widely from Hamilton to Markham, activists say police have no place in schools, period.
At the centre of the debate is the reason behind the program: while school boards and police services say it's primarily to forge better relations between officers and the community, opponents say the unstated aim is for police to surveil and then collect crime-related information from students in close quarters.
There are also concerns some boards are targeting schools with marginalized populations.
The debate is happening at a time when the needs of racialized students, particularly black males, have become a priority in the province. According to data collected by the TDSB in 2006 and 2011, graduation rates for black students were disproportionately lower than those of non-black students, while rates of suspensions from school were higher. Ontario's anti-racism strategic plan, released earlier this year, includes a $47-million action plan for black youth. Last year, the TDSB created a black student achievement advisory committee and the Peel District School Board launched an action plan to support black male students.
"If these school boards take an equity lens, and if they say that even one student being affected negatively by this program is one too many, all of the evidence is already there. We don't need more reviews. We need action," said Phillip Morgan, a member of the activist group Education Not Incarceration.
At the TDSB, the SRO program was launched in 2007 following the shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute, a school Mr. Lea also attended. A few months after the boy's death, lawyer Julian Falconer published a report with a long list of recommendations for the TDSB, including hiring more social workers and youth counsellors and bringing in small, non-threatening dogs to detect drugs in lockers – but specified they should be handled by "board employees, not uniformed police officers."
The TDSB went beyond the recommendations and assigned officers to work in high schools in the city – until the program was suspended, there were 27 officers at 45 schools. The schools were selected after consultations with trustees, staff, parents and the community, says board spokesperson Ryan Bird. Critics note that many of the chosen schools have large populations of racialized students, particularly black ones.
Current statistics reflect the long-simmering tension between law enforcement and the black community in the city: More than half of Toronto's black population has been stopped by police in public, according to the Black Experience Project, a multiyear study led by the Environics Institute for Survey Research. When it came to black men between the ages of 25 and 44, almost 80 per cent said they'd been stopped by cops in public.
Mr. Lea grew up having regular interactions with police in his neighbourhood from a young age. Once, when hanging out with friends at a community basketball court, a police officer approached and his friends scattered. The officer pressed Mr. Lea, then just eight years old, against a fence and asked him several questions. What happened that day impacted how he perceived police, including the ones he saw at school.
"I learned how to avoid them and keep my head low and blend in," he said.
Mr. Lea remembers that, during his time at C.W. Jefferys and Westview Centennial Collegiates, SROs stopped black and South Asian male students most often. And it was understood that students who willingly engaged with police, in or out of school, were destined to be unpopular. "If a cop came to speak to one person, the hallway would be deserted," Mr. Lea says.
But not all SROs are received that way by students at their assigned schools.
At W. H. Ballard Elementary School in Hamilton this week, police Constable Jackie Masters stood in front of a mostly white Grade 3 class and fielded questions. "Do you have a gun?" "Is that a Taser?" "Can kids go to jail?" In full uniform, she stopped to speak with students at their desks. One came by and hugged her.
"I'm just a regular person," she said to a group of children. "You don't have to be shy with me."
Constable Masters is one of 11 police officers who work with elementary and high schools in the Hamilton area. Police are generally invited by school administrators to do presentations on topics such as bullying, but Constable Masters also stops by the school when she's nearby. She is the community services officer to W. H. Ballard and 45 other schools. Her work includes presentations on policing, participating in restorative justice circles, helping with school lockdown drills and occasionally meeting with families if they need support.
She said that she finds the program rewarding, because police officers are able to spread "positive messages" and provide support and guidance to young people. She said she hoped the program also allowed for students to feel more comfortable asking a police officer for help.
At one school in York Region (where 18 SROs are shared between 70 high schools in three regional school boards), there was an issue with bullying and feuding among several groups of students; the assigned SRO hauled in a broken piece of heavy machinery, dumped it in the shop class and challenged the students to work together to repair it. Female officers have started an all-female running group with girls at the schools where they're stationed, others have developed sports programming for newcomers.
The Durham District School Board has been piloting an SRO program at three high schools and three elementary schools for the past three years and its officers coach sports teams and run charitable events.
Individuals involved with the programs at all the public boards in the GTA emphasized that building a sense of trust between students and police was one of the key aims of the SRO program.
But Desmond Cole, an activist and journalist who has called for the end of SRO programs, is troubled by this goal.
"All this rapport building and everything, it's about establishing relationships so they can get information from young people. And often, that information is going to be used against young people in ways they can't understand," he said.
Many of those who have spoken out against SROs say there is value in the anti-bullying or drug-awareness presentations officers make in classrooms, but that there is no need for police to be delivering that information to students – it should come from guidance counsellors, social workers and other support staff.
"What we need is properly funded schools," says Andrea Vasquez Jimenez, co-chair of the Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network, another group that has spoken out against the program. "We don't need SRO presence in our schools. We need schools to get back to teaching, learning and feeling safe for all our students."
Of particular concern to Ms. Vásquez Jiménez are the many undocumented students she hears from who fear their immigration status might be revealed to an SRO, who might then report it to the Canada Border Services Agency. The TDSB has a "don't ask don't tell" policy when it comes to students' immigration status, but Ms. Vasquez Jimenez says she worries police in schools don't adhere to it.
Until this point, all evaluations of SRO programs have been done internally, usually by the school boards or police services that operate them. While Toronto Police Services has assigned Ryerson University the task of evaluating Toronto's SRO program, Mr. Cole points out the city's chief of police is one of the members of the review's steering committee.
For the past two and a half years, Linda Duxbury, a business professor at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business, has conducted a review of Peel's SRO program. Dr. Duxbury and her team surveyed 1,000 Grade 9 students at the beginning of the school year and then again in March about their perceptions of safety and their feelings about police; officers, administrators and staff were also interviewed.
Though the results won't be published until October, Dr. Duxbury said they were positive and she was pleased to see the regional police service maintaining its program at all schools, rather than following the lead of many other police services, who have cut back on their school resource officers over the years as a cost-saving measure.
"I think Peel should be congratulated for having the guts not to do that," she said. "The fact that they're saying, in times of budget crunch, [they're] still going to protect the proactive, relationship-building, community police that everybody says they want but costs money."
She said the great strength of the program was that it placed officers in all schools – as opposed to select ones as the TDSB does. In Peel Region, police officers are assigned to each school within the public and Catholic boards as part of a program that has run for 20 years.
But even while Dr. Duxbury's study was under way, the Peel board had already turned the microscope on itself. In 2016, it conducted a series of focus groups with 87 black male high school students about how they felt about school. Black students said they felt teachers had low expectations of them, and that other students, teachers and police were quick to judge them based on their appearance. These students also said that police blamed them for incidents in school without asking questions. In the community, police stopped or randomly pulled them over more frequently than they did non-black students. The board announced a series of measures to address the issue, including anti-black racism and bias awareness training and mentoring programs.
In a previous report in 2015, published by several organizations, including United Way of Peel Region, black youth reported feeling isolated and marginalized in the education system for a number of reasons, including teachers' low expectations of them, the absence of black culture in the curriculum, relatively few black teachers in schools and the presence of police in schools, which "often strikes fear and mistrust in black students."
Mr. Cole is dismissive of the reviews being conducted – whether or not they're independent – because to him, what's important is how the minority of students feel, not the majority.
"They don't mind if three or four out of 10 of our kids get kicked out school, get suspended from school, get put in lower streaming programs," he said. "Any evaluation needs to be weighed in that light: That says not all the kids' experiences are being valued equally. The kids that are experiencing the most difficulty are the least valued."