Hamilton kids celebrate no more police in their schools
Program cancellation will do more harm than good, officer says
How does 13-year-old Mikhail Jama feel knowing police officers won’t be making regular visits to his school when he starts his first year of high school this September?
Mikhail was one of a group of kids who stood outside a Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) meeting in the rain on June 22, waiting to hear what would happen to a program that matched police officers with schools in Hamilton.
When board members voted to scrap the 26-year-old program, the kids danced in the streets, Mikhail said. Some of them even cried.
The decision comes at a time when some people are discussing “defunding” the police, as a way to ensure that Black people aren’t treated unfairly — or even hurt or killed — by officers.
Despite the celebration in the streets, Supt. Will Mason with the Hamilton Police Service worries that scrapping the program will only make the relationship between people of colour and the police worse.
Mikhail Jama said he was nervous about starting high school in September knowing there would be a police presence in his school. (Image submitted by Sarah Jama)
How did the program work?
In total, 11 school liaison officers were assigned to work with staff and students at 196 schools in the area.
Because of the staffing levels, the officers weren’t able to visit their designated schools every day or even each week.
But they tried to make regular appearances, doing presentations on things like internet safety and bullying.
When there was an incident at the school, the officers might do an investigation and set up meetings to try and resolve it.
They also had special training to help kids navigate the legal system if they broke the law, in a way that might help them avoid serious penalties.
When the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board was debating what to do with the police program on June 22, protesters with a group called HWDSB Kids Need Help blocked off the street outside city hall. (Image credit: @HWDSBKids/Twitter)
Why was the program cancelled?
Board members decided to review the program after some students said they felt intimidated by police, HWDSB chairperson Alex Johnstone told the CBC in June.
Even though the board had heard from some students and parents who had positive interactions with the officers, she said that’s not good enough.
Board members need to “work to build a better system where all of our students feel safe in our schools,” Johnstone said.
The police liaison program will still be in place in the city’s French, Catholic and private schools going forward.
Mikhail said staff at a place like Hamilton’s The Space Youth Centre would be more effective than police when it comes to helping kids navigate difficult situations. (Image submitted by Sarah Jama)
Mikhail, who is Black, said he’s heard enough stories — including the one about George Floyd, who died in May in the U.S. after an officer kneeled on his neck — that he feels “scared for his safety” around police.
“You feel like you’re being targeted by them for the way you look,” he said.
Mikhail said youth workers, such as the ones who work at his local drop-in centre, would be a better fit to help students — especially people of colour — deal with problems in a school setting.
Hamilton Police Service Supt. Will Mason said he’s worried cancelling the police program in schools will further damage the relationship between police and people of colour. (Image credit: Hamilton Police Service)
Concerns about the cancellation
Problem is, police officers “bring a certain level of expertise to some topics that others don’t,” said Mason, especially in cases where kids are breaking the law.
More importantly, he said, the point of the police program in schools was to build a positive relationship with kids — to “humanize that person behind the badge a little bit.”
That becomes “difficult to do that if the only time we interact with young people is when something bad happens,” Mason said.
“We don’t want anybody to be fearful of the police,” he said, and that’s why it’s really important for kids to have open conversations with officers — so they can work to improve that relationship instead of making it worse.
Haleluya Hailu from Burnaby, B.C., said she’s received a lot of support from other students after she spoke out about problems she sees with the police program at her school. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
Elsewhere in Canada
The HWDSB isn’t the only school board in Canada that’s currently reviewing its relationship with the police.
School boards in Vancouver and Victoria voted to reassess their programs in June.
Burnaby North Secondary student Haleluya Hailu told the CBC in June she feels intimidated by the police officers in her school.
"If you want to get rid of gangs and drugs, having a 30-year-old dude in a bulletproof vest isn't going to stop that," she said.
"I'd rather see students making connections with counsellors, teachers and educators.”
What do you think?
With files from Dan Taekema/CBC Hamilton, Roshini Nair/CBC Vancouver