Police presence in Toronto schools up in the air as board puts off vote until December

The fate of a program that puts uniformed police officers in some 75 schools across Toronto remains up in the air after the police board voted to defer a decision until December.

Black Lives Matter Toronto wants officers out, but at least 11 councillors support program

Protests delayed a meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board where members were considering whether to suspend a program that puts uniformed officers in some Toronto schools. (Kira Wakeam/CBC)

The fate of a program that puts uniformed police officers in some 75 schools across Toronto remains up in the air until the end of the year. 

After debating into the night Thursday about whether to end the controversial program, the Toronto Police Services Board voted to defer a decision until December, instead striking a committee to review the matter.

"We're tired of reports. They happen all the time," Pascale Diverlus of Black Lives Matter told reporters after the meeting came to an end.

"This is an urgent matter. There are children that are being handcuffed at the age of six years old. There are children that are being targeted. There are children that don't feel safe going to school because there are police officers in their school."

More than 70 people spoke for and against the program at the almost eight-hour debate about the School Resource Officer (SRO) program, which launched in 2008 following the fatal school shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Manners. The program has placed officers in 75 different schools, semi-permanently, across the city. 

Pascale Diverlus of Black Lives Matter, left, says she's tired of reports and wants action. (CBC)

Andre Breau, co-chair of the parent council at Western Technical and Commercial School, was there to lend his support for SRO.

"It's been positive, as far as our school experience. The students have reacted positively," said Breau, who has a daughter in Grade 9 and a son in Grade 10. 

Earlier in the day, the meeting adjourned for a short time after protests erupted. 

"Black kids, you matter here!" chanted demonstrators, as the meeting room was temporarily cleared Thursday afternoon.

Nick Mills has been teaching at C.W. Jeffreys Collegiate Institute, where Manners was shot, for the past five years.

He said the SROs have been a big part of the school's transformation and he wants to see the program continue.

Nick Mills has been a teacher at C.W. Jeffreys Collegiate Institute for five years and says the presence of a police officer in the school has been positive. (CBC)

"You want all communities to see police as a trusted partner — not as the enemy. And when they're only coming in when there's a problem, well then, that's when the perception [comes in] that they're not us," Mills said ahead of the meeting. "Ending the program is not a good idea."

Student Andrew Ramautar, 14, was less sure, saying he sometimes feels uncomfortable seeing officers walking the halls.

"I do feel that they can be a little discriminatory," said Ramautar, but said he wouldn't necessarily want the program scrapped. 

Student Andrew Ramautar, 14, says he sometimes feels uncomfortable seeing officers walking the halls. (CBC)

"Even though I feel intimidated, I feel like it would be a lot more dangerous [without them]," he said.

Meaghan McGarry, an SRO co-ordinator, said that during her time as an officer in schools, students would approach her about everything from breakups to problems at home, trouble with the law or just to say hello.

"As a police officer and a parent, I look at all these kids as my own," McGarry said. 

Meaghan McGarry says that during her time as an officer in schools, students would talk to her about a range of topics. (CBC)

At its May meeting, the board voted to review the program, which deploys 36 officers to the 75 participating schools. That means less than 10 per cent of Toronto's public schools have an officer stationed there.

Toronto police spokesperson Meaghan Gray said in an email that officers are invited into schools by principals, who need the approval of the school's superintendent, council and trustee. Most stay at the school for three years, she said.

The police force spends some $3.5 million on the officers' salaries and benefits, Gray said, but the program doesn't have a specific budget otherwise. Programming funds come from private donations or organizations like the charity ProAction Cops & Kids.

But lawyer Saron Gebresellassi said officers in hallways doesn't keep students safe.

It's not against police, it's about policing.- Ken  Jeffers , Toronto Police Services Board member

"It's having the exact opposite effect. It's actually marginalizing students and having a really detrimental effect on their well-being," she told CBC Toronto.

Gebresellassi has defended a number of youths who faced criminal charges for incidents at schools where officers were present. She also works with Black Lives Matter Toronto, one of the loudest voices calling to end the program.​

While some want more police officers in Toronto schools, others are calling for that practice to be suspended immediately. (John Rieti/CBC)

Mayor says decisions should hinge on study results

Mayor John Tory said he heard concerns about the program during the city's recent consultations on how to deal with anti-black racism, and that he takes those concerns seriously. But that doesn't mean he'll scrap the program.

"To me, it is just not the way you should make big decisions," he said, noting many people have instead called for more officers in schools.

Human rights lawyer Saron Gebresellassi says the School Resource Officer program isn't keeping students safe. She hopes Toronto's police board will end it. (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

Tory said he wants to wait for a full review of the program — an interim report is due in August — before deciding.

The board agreed, voting to strike a committee with two board members and the police chief to draft the report. After August, the committee will open to "participants who reflect a diversity of views."

About the Author

John Rieti

John Rieti covers city hall and city issues for CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country in search of great stories. Outside of work, catch him running or cycling around, often armed with a camera, always in search of excellent coffee.

With files from Linda Ward, Shannon Martin, Kira Wakeam, Ron Charles