School board to continue temporary ban on police uniforms despite growing criticism
Premier, Ottawa police union among those calling for reversal of policy
The chair of Ottawa's largest school board says there is no immediate plan to reverse a temporary policy requiring police officers to shed their uniforms when appearing as guest speakers in schools, despite recent criticisms from the police union, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe.
The initial policy change in 2021 was made at the urging of students who are mostly racialized or members of the LGBTQ community dealing with "disproportionate fear based on interactions" they've had with police, said Lyra Evans, who chairs the board of trustees with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB).
Evans said the board will maintain the policy because certain aspects of a police uniform can create fear among some students.
"The uniform that they're talking about includes a firearm, includes a bulletproof vest, includes the accoutrements that are traditionally associated with police or state violence," Evans told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.
"There's nothing that prevents you from attending the school in [an Ottawa police] T-shirt and talking about the work that you do as a police officer."
Evans said they continue to encourage officers to attend events and engage with students.
The school board's interim policy on police uniforms, which has been in effect for non-essential school events for nearly two years, resurfaced as a lightning rod when Ford voiced his objection on Twitter Thursday.
This is a disturbing trend that needs to stop. Police officers are the people we call when we need help. They deserve so much better than this.<br><br>I’m calling on the <a href="https://twitter.com/OCDSB?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@OCDSB</a> to immediately reverse this policy and show our heroes on the frontlines the respect they deserve. <a href="https://t.co/3BsRzfhyPX">https://t.co/3BsRzfhyPX</a>—@fordnation
"This is a disturbing trend that needs to stop," Ford tweeted.
"I'm calling on the OCDSB to immediately reverse this policy and show our heroes on the frontlines the respect they deserve."
The premier, who declined to speak with CBC, appears to have written the tweet in response to a "letter of disappointment" posted Wednesday by the Ottawa Police Association, the union representing Ottawa police officers.
"The brave men and women who wear the uniform deserve better," the letter stated.
Member complained to union about school incident
Police association president Matthew Cox said the issue was raised by a member who complained to the union about an incident at the Stittsville Public School.
The woman, whom Cox declined to identify, said she had planned to attend an event about "community helpers" at her child's Grade 1 class, but was told she couldn't arrive in uniform or bring a marked police vehicle.
"We're trying to build relationships and I think that it's very important that kids at a young age get to see police in a positive setting, and not just having police show up because the school is calling them in the time of need," Cox told CBC.
Sutcliffe also took to social media Friday to say a parent wishing to share her career experience should not be turned away.
OCDSB maintains the woman was never barred from the school.
"The parent was warmly invited to attend and to share her work experience with the class, but asked to do so without the uniform and the police car," OCDSB's director of education Michele Giroux stated.
Evans said the board received hundreds of responses from the approximately 75,000 students enrolled in OCDSB schools when it made the policy change. At the time, an advisory group published a report highlighting a series of deeply entrenched problems, such as systemic racism, associated with the presence of school resource officers (SRO).
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"Many students came out and said that they've had fear, anxiety — they felt that their mental health was being impacted," Evans said. "Their well-being was being impacted and because of that, their academic achievement and their learning was being impacted."
OCDSB trustees passed a motion to defund the SRO program in the summer of 2021. All except one trustee voted in favour. The board decided then it would only engage with police as necessary to "meet its minimum statutory obligations under the relevant provincial protocols."
The board decided to pause official relationships with uniformed police officers in non-urgent scenarios while the parties figure out how to move forward.
"If you call 911, the police will show up. What has changed is the police will no longer, or have not been doing presentations to students," said Evans.
'Insulting' to say police have negative impact, trustee says
OCDSB trustee Donna Dickson said in a statement she disagreed with Evans' response to the police association.
Dickson, who was first elected last fall, is the mother of Ashton Dickson, who was shot and killed outside a nightclub in 2017.
"As a mother whose son was taken from me due to gun violence and having worked closely with the Ottawa police to seek justice, I find it insulting for Trustee Evans to suggest that the presence of police in schools have a negative impact on students' mental health and their academic achievement," said Dickson, who declined to speak with CBC.
Cox, meanwhile, said preventing uniformed police officers from educating students will create further divide in the community.
"The majority of the kids want to see the siren, want to see the lights of the police car, want to see the police uniform," he said.
Evans said police still have plenty of opportunities to humanize themselves and build relationships with children and the community outside the school system, while maintaining the current policy is not permanent.
In a statement to CBC, the OCDSB says its director of education will have a sit-down conversation with Cox about policing in schools next week. Members will also meet with Ottawa police Chief Eric Stubbs, the board said.