National Column: Getting rid of police officers in schools profoundly unfair

by Rosie DiManno

On a recent night, I had reason to call the police.

As little more than an observer to events, this is what I saw: Three cops who responded quickly, who were completely professional, immensely helpful and exceedingly kind to a young man in distress.

I feel it necessary to get that on the record. Because, in decades of covering crime, police and policing issues, the news gist has almost always been negative and my perceptions harsh.

Those were the legitimate stories: Cops lying under oath, cops planting evidence, cops exercising colossal and sometimes lethal misjudgment. If an unflattering light has been brought to bear on police in the media, the blame lies with the relatively few who have dishonoured the badge by their misconduct and their crimes. Even more unfortunate is how the thin blue line so often forms a circle around alleged and proven offenders, when they are the ones who collectively bear the consequences of escalating public distrust.

More than one or two bad apples, clearly, and too often wiggling (slithering) off the hook via a combination of inadequate civilian oversight, judges and juries loathe to impose penalties that any civilian would face in similar circumstances, the skill of slick, high-priced lawyers few of us could afford and a system that legislatively has made it near impossible for a police chief to jettison miscreants.

All that said, I’ve never viewed police, collectively, as the enemy.

We need to be careful, I think, about castigating an entire profession – the thousands of men and women who do their job honourably – and promoting pernicious stereotypes, just as we accuse cops of stereotyping segments of the public.

We need to be cautious, I think, about fostering animus by extrapolating the bitterness of a loud minority and applying it to the moderate majority.

It is for these reasons that I am deeply displeased by the decision of the Toronto District School Board to terminate the School Resource Officer Program.

Of course, that diktat was well in the bag before Canada’s largest school board rubber-stamped its verdict in a Wednesday night vote. It was obvious where we were headed when the board suspended the program in August. Their mind was made up, long before receiving a staff report which recommended the program be shelved, a report wherein data collected actually flies in the face of conclusions drawn. So itchy to be “bold,” rather than rational, that the board didn’t await the results of a yearlong review undertaken by Ryerson University at the behest of police Chief Mark Saunders.

The board quite evidently started with the premise that School Resource Officers (SROs) are inherently bad for students, then back-walked their decision by falsely weighing the data to justify a prejudice. This is straight out of the OISE activist playbook.

I’ve no quarrel with activism. I do have a problem with crusades that disregard overwhelming consensus.

Surveys of 15,500 students, plus parents, community groups, teachers and staff, indicated a hefty majority were in favour of the program, that having an SRO in the school made them feel safer, or were simply not sure and had no opinion.

A mere 10 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed.

That’s the tail wagging the dog.

A whopping 71 per cent said they hadn’t had any interaction with an SRO at all, which can be read either positively or negatively – no cause for interaction or possibly the officer not sufficiently engaged with students.

Keep in mind that these officers were invited into the schools a decade ago following the shooting death of teenager Jordan Manners at C.W. Jefferys. While the North York high school was originally reluctant to have a uniformed officer on the premises, those objections were promptly dropped after another teen was stabbed and yet another was found with a loaded handgun.

Although the long-term ramifications of SROs have been sketchy to assess – hence the Ryerson undertaking – data from Year One of the program at schools across the city (the numbers have varied over the years) designated as high-risk environments for students showed a 17-per-cent drop in suspensions and 16-per-cent drop in criminal charges against students.

Jefferys’ principal, Monday Gala, is supportive of the program. As he told the Star’s Wendy Gillis last May: “If you come into Jefferys today and see the positivity that is going on organized by this partnership with the police, you can’t deny the fact that there is a place for the police in the school.”

But the board, unlike the Toronto Catholic District School Board, which has no intention of discontinuing the program, wasn’t truly interested in the input of Gala.

Their ears, their sympathies, were clearly more attuned to the students and parents and crusaders who vilified the program for allegedly fast-tracking some students towards a hostile relationship with police, targeted suspicion, criminalization and an almost pre-ordained incarceration.

These concerns were particularly expressed by Black, Indigenous, Latino and undocumented immigrant communities whose children have a legal right to education.

Because their children feel unsafe or intimidated or watched by the SRO, then everybody else’s children should be rendered less safe by abandoning the program at the 45 schools where SROs were deployed last year.

This is sophistry and profoundly unfair.

It would be fairer for parents to ask themselves why their kids have fallen under the purported over-scrutiny of an SRO and maybe, at least, entertain the possibility that it might have something to do with attitude, behaviour and astute observation; it may not be simply a deductive response based on race or ethnicity.

TDSB director John Molloy was forthright, if pedantic, in asserting that the board’s decision was not based on “majority rules,” because every student deserves to feel safe and comfortable in school.

Of course they do. Of course they should.

But removing the SROs because 1,715 students surveyed said their presence made them feel
intimidated – 2,207 said they felt watched and targeted – is intolerably dismissive, disrespectful of the 13,000-plus who had no objections.

I’d call it a capitulation to the loudest screamers in the room, except it’s obvious the board aligned itself from the get-go with the cop-haters.

Maybe the program is indeed a rotten idea. But I’d await the findings of the Ryerson project, assuming their methodology is sturdier than the board’s slapdash pulse-taking.

The board’s pre-emptive decision is not, as some claim, “a huge victory.” It’s a jerry-rigged victory, a validation for the forces of division and discord.

It reinforces for students who already hold a dim view of cops that they are not to be trusted, that law enforcement is not to be trusted: The enemy.

They will leave school ripe with stoked apprehensions and leeriness.

And, frankly, with the entitlement of the virtuous bullying.

A teenager who happened by the incident I mentioned at the top of this column hissed at one of the officers: “I hate cops.”

Whose fault is that?

I wanted to sit on the curb and weep.

Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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