First, Toronto police were forced out of this year's Pride parade. Even though smiling police waving rainbow flags march with the expressed purpose of showing they are friends, not enemies, of the LGBTQ community, activists argued that they are a hostile presence that makes marginalized people feel threatened.
Now, police may be forced out of Toronto schools. Using the same dubious argument, activists say that having uniformed cops around can make students feel stigmatized and unsafe. After hearing a series of scathing attacks on the School Resource Officer (SRO) program at a meeting last month, the police board talked seriously about withdrawing the cops. It will consider the issue again at its next meeting, on June 15.
Police started stationing officers in schools in 2008. The move was a response to the worries about school safety that followed the fatal shooting of Jordan Manners, a 15-year-old in Grade 9, at C.W. Jefferys high school. Today, 36 officers work in about 75 schools around the city. They are there not just to head off trouble in the hallways and schoolyards, but to make students more familiar with police, breaking down barriers of mistrust.
Two evaluations, in 2009 and 2011, indicated the program was working well. Police Chief Mark Saunders says that opinion surveys have shown that 58 per cent of students feel safer with the cops around.
The chair of the Catholic school board, Angela Kennedy, says in a letter to the police board that the SRO cops have become "key members of our school family, serving as positive role models, mentors, coaches, counsellors and, in many cases, much needed adult authority figures in the daily lives of many students." The program opens line of communication between police and young people, she says. "This unique community-based program has been critical in maintaining and fostering safe and accepting learning environments."
Those who spoke at last month's meeting claim it has precisely the opposite effect. They said it tarnishes the name of the schools where the officers work, marking them as troubled, dangerous places. They said it makes students with uncertain immigration status feel at risk.
They said the cops are a constant reminder to marginalized youths of how the system criminalizes them, and of the racism they often face. They said the program has become just one more force among many others – racial profiling, streaming into non-academic programs – that alienates them from school and stands in the way of their success.
Members of the police board listened carefully to all of this. Nobody wants police in the schools if they don't need to be there, still less if they are causing tension. Mayor John Tory, who sits on the board, says he has heard similar things at community meetings about the SRO program and said "I'm not sure it's working." He wants a thorough review. Chief Saunders says he is already planning one.
That's a good idea. It has been six years since the program last had an evaluation. It only makes sense to examine whether the claims made for it, good and bad, stand up. But it would be a mistake to suspend the program on the basis of the unsubstantiated claims and overheated rhetoric that the board heard at last month's meeting. The divisive idea – heard in the Pride debate and seemingly everywhere these days – is that the police are a kind of occupying force in many Toronto communities, with its boot on the neck of the oppressed. The problem is not crime but over-policing. The answer is for police simply to back off.
It would be too bad if they did. Under former police chief Bill Blair and now Chief Saunders, the police have been striving to reach out to troubled neighbourhoods and forge relationships with the people who live in them – the essence of community policing. It's a valuable effort, even if it doesn't always succeed. The cops-in-schools program is part of that effort. Pulling them out without even knowing all the facts would be another surrender to militant badgering.