Ending cops-in-schools right thing to do

 In Latest News, The public board -TDSB

The Toronto District School Board’s decision to opt out of the School Resource Officer program has been interpreted by some as anti-police. That is completely false, writes board chair Robin Pilkey.

Members of the public, and others, appear before the Police Services Board to discus the funding of School Resource Officers (SRO) in local schools. 

When making the decision to end the TDSB’s participation in the SRO program, the board took into consideration and gave weight to the experiences of roughly 2,000 students surveyed from the 45 schools that had contact with an SRO. They reported feeling uncomfortable or very uncomfortable interacting with the SRO at their school, to feelings of intimidation or of being watched/targeted.

While these students were in the minority (the majority of students surveyed reported positive or indifferent feelings) it doesn’t mean that we ignore these feelings simply because they represented the minority. In fact, the board has an ethical and legal responsibility to take their feelings seriously.

It’s unacceptable that a program designed to build bridges could cause negative and harmful experiences for some students. It’s equally unacceptable that the board would simply say the majority rules and continue with the program knowing full well that some of our students — not activists and hardliners, just students — felt uncomfortable, intimidated and targeted in their own school.

The board is not about to say to these students: Too bad for you and your feelings. Just accept it, put your head down and move on. You are, after all, in the minority. Yet I have read in some media and from some members of the public that have responded to the board’s decision that we should have taken this approach.

Some even went further: By the way, if you happen to be from a racialized group, this will be a good lesson in having your views dismissed or marginalized as bitter activists and cop haters. And a few suggested that students who expressed negative feelings about SROs should, along with their parents, look into the mirror for answers.

Having heard and read these reactions, I am more confident that we made the right decision and for the right reasons. Not every single problem can be solved using the majority lens. Sure, it’s simple and efficient — especially if you’re in the majority — and it offers a feeling of resolution. The TDSB decision in this case was based on the concerns expressed by our students and members of the community. We didn’t assign motives to them, blame them for their feelings or marginalize them. We based the decision on fairness and inclusiveness, not a simple majority.

I am also more mindful of the challenges, even the hostility we face as a society and within our public institutions, when equity, inclusiveness and anti-oppression, particularly with respect to racialized and marginalized groups, collide with the perceived sense of entitlement and privilege that some attribute, I think incorrectly, to the majority.

The board’s decision does not and will not mean ignoring the feelings of safety expressed by the majority. Nor will we pit one against the other. Anyone who attended committee and board meetings where this decision was discussed or heard any of the dozens of presentations to the board from the community would know this.

Not a day goes by when we are not thinking about school safety. Nearly 10 years ago, Julian Falconer prepared the most comprehensive, independent, third party review of school safety undertaken after the death of a student in school. While most of the recommendations were implemented, some were not. That’s why a number of community members suggested that instead of the SRO program, we should focus on how we use counsellors, social workers, School-Based Safety Monitors and other supports for students, teachers and school administrators.

The report did not recommend putting police in schools, and I think there’s a reason for that. School safety is the collective responsibility of everyone within a school. No one individual creates a safe school merely by their presence. The majority of TDSB high schools didn’t participate in the program and most of those that did shared an SRO, seeing them once or twice a week. If this program was foundational to school safety, then each and every one of our schools would have had an SRO.

The TDSB’s decision to opt out of the SRO program has been interpreted by some as anti-police. That is completely false. The board highly values and supports the tremendous work that police officers do in keeping our schools and communities safe. The board and its schools have worked in partnership with the police for years — long before the SRO program.

We have a school-police protocol that spells out the common expectations when police interact with schools, students or staff. All 583 of our schools have relationships with their local police divisions and those will continue. Toronto Police continue to respond quickly to threats to student, staff and school safety as they have always done — and done well.

Robin Pilkey is chair of the Toronto District School Board and trustee for Ward 7, Parkdale-High Park.

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