February 11, 2009

Policing our schools

Semra Eylul Sevi & Kabir Joshi-Vijayan
This article was originally published in the U of T publication, The Newspaper

The Toronto District Public and Catholic School Boards have implemented a program stationing a fully uniformed and armed police officer in each of thirty different high schools spanning every corner of the city. The pilot program was proposed, designed and is being financed by the Toronto Police Services (TPS).

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair submitted the initiative after the release of the Falconer Report on school safety last January. The Falconer report was commissioned by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to look into issues of school safety after the tragic killing of Jordon Manners inside C.W. Jeffery's high school in 2007. Referencing the Falconer Report, the official Toronto Police Services publicity purports the program aims to build "healthy and trusting relationships" between police and students. Chief Blair assures that trusting students will be more inclined to report incidents of offence, which can prevent crime and violence.

Yet of the 136 recommendations listed in the Falconer Report to improve school safety – not one recommended stationing police inside schools (armed or otherwise). Lawyer Julian Falconer, the author of the report, says he is at a loss as to why the School Boards implemented the program. However, the report did criticize the school board's habit of concealing security problems, and recommended open dialogue and discussion with students and the community about issues of safety. However, the TDSB provided the most minimal of communication on the program and did no community consultation. Approval for the initiative in any one school only required support from the trustee, school principal and superintendant of education.

Revealingly, communities that have since been allowed input on assigning a cop inside their schools have declined the offer. At The Student School, where the students have a say on school policy through frequent assemblies, students came out overwhelming against the proposal and rejected it.

The reality is that that the distrust and fear of police that students expressed in surveys for the Falconer Report are not based on youthful misconceptions, but on actual lived experience. Poor, racialized and Black youth (and their loved ones) are regular victims of overly aggressive policing, violence and racist profiling in their communities, and the surveillance and containment they experience in those communities is now being transferred to schools. One such cop discussed that besides "bonding" with students at the school, "part of (his) detail" included surveillance of students at a nearby mall over lunch and local community centre after school. It allowed him to "get to know the characters".

This is not the first time that there has been a "partnership" between cops and schools. Thousands of Ontario students and their parents were disenfranchised under the 2001 Safe Schools Act and subsequent "Zero Tolerance Policy" which gave teachers and Principals greater authority to suspend and expel students for a range of safety and discipline issues, and to involve police. The consequence was the excessive and unfair application of the Act against Black, disabled and poor racialized students, who went from being pushed out of school to being involved with the criminal justice system. Under the current TPS program there have already been instances where educators have clashed with police officers desiring to proceed with criminal action against students.

By implementing this program, School Board administrators have shown once again that they have no concept (or care) about the needs and concerns of their most marginalized youth. The most crucial recommendations from the Falconer Report (such as increased social and educational support services) have not been implemented. They have also ignored one of the biggest criticisms coming out of the report, and that is the identified problem of equity in education. For "at risk" youth whose motivation to remain in a dysfunctional and discriminatory education system is already teetering – cops in schools will be the nudge to knock them out (just as it was under the Safe Schools Act).

The Toronto Police have their own motivation for the program, which they aspire to expand. The pilot project is being paid for through the department of community policing, the funds for which come out of the provincial money pot shared by the department of education. Such police programs justify soaring police budgets against the backdrop of fading social services budgets, including cuts to education. The program is nothing more than an expensive public relations campaign designed to deflect criticism of bad police behavior while doing nothing to address real problems of public accountability by the police services. The truth is that cops in schools do nothing to improve the reality (or image) of cops on streets – nor is it intended to.

In December of 2008, residents and community workers at Jane and Finch were able to resist this program by organizing a rally and march against police brutality. Their demands included the removal of armed police from their schools, which was achieved. And this is just the beginning. A coalition of students, parents, educators and community activists are building a campaign against putting police in schools. The coalition goes by the acronym NOCOPS (Newly Organized Coalition Opposed to Police in Schools). They work to educate youth, parents, and community stakeholders about the inherent risks in this initiative for the already marginalized and criminalized youth. To get involved please contact NO COPS atnocops.to@gmail.com

(A PV commentary about the Falconer Report can be found here)

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