Toronto debate over police in schools sparks anger, but few answers

Toronto's police services board voted to keep its controversial officers-in-schools program running until at least the end of 2017.

Black Lives Matter Toronto wants program axed, but many calling for its expansion

Dozens of representatives from Black Lives Matter Toronto attended the police services board meeting this week to condemn a program that puts uniformed officers in schools, but the group didn't get the result it was hoping for. (John Rieti/CBC)

After a day of heated discussion about whether uniformed police officers have a place in Toronto high schools, two things are clear: they will continue patrolling the hallways of some schools, and the fierce debate over their presence is not going away.

The city's police services board voted to keep its controversial Student Resource Officer (SRO) program running until at least the end of 2017, when it's set to receive the results of a report on how the program is working — a topic fiercely debated at a packed meeting on Thursday that heard from more than 80 people.

In a city where the police force has become a flashpoint for discussions about race, neither side appears to be budging — nor, for that matter, listening to one another.

The police board will hold consultations about the SRO program, but right now it's hard to picture a resolution that will please both sides.

'No more reviews'

Representatives from Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) are loudly condemning the program and calling for its immediate end, arguing armed officers are an intimidating and dangerous presence for racialized youth.

"No more reviews," one member of the outspoken group yelled as the debate began.

"Ra-cis-m!" someone shouted during another person's deputation.

Several speakers cited anecdotal and concerning accounts of youth feeling targeted by officers. BLMTO's Syrus Marcus Ware said his daughter attends a Toronto school where "she has witnessed first-hand police brutality."

"No SRO program ... is going to take away from what she witnessed at five years old," he said. SRO programs only operate in high schools, but some elementary schools in the city have what are known as community school liaison officers.

Those who defend the SRO program, including police officers working in schools and some of the students who have interacted with them, say it has the power to break down barriers and prevent problems before they start.

Const. Curtis Celestine — who simply goes by Curtis around students — won praise from one principal for taking the time to have coffee with troubled youth, and opening the gym for basketball in the dead of winter.

Celestine told the board the SRO program isn't about him, but his students. "I'm proud to be part of their journey."

Other officers took to social media to make their case.

Numerous speakers urged the board not to dismiss these positive accounts, with Celestine noting there's no way to measure goodwill aside from counting the number of high-fives he gets in schools.

Several students praised the officers they've worked with.

Taijah Lawrence-Scott, who attends York Memorial Collegiate Institute, said her SRO "stopped me from getting into so many problems." She said the officer proved he truly loved the students by once breaking down in tears while pleading with two groups of students to avoid a major confrontation.

Critic warns officers may stigmatize schools

The SRO program was established in 2008 after 15-year-old Jordan Manners was fatally shot in the chest at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in the city's west end. 

The program places 36 officers in 75 schools across the city — meaning less than 10 per cent of Toronto's public schools have an SRO. It costs about $3.5 million per year in officer salaries and benefits, a police spokesperson said.

What sparked the current debate is a letter Toronto Catholic District School Board Chair Angela Kennedy sent to police in April, calling for the program to be maintained, even as the force is trying to trim its $1 billion annual budget. 

Demand for SROs, she said, is growing.

Principals, with the approval of the school's superintendent, council and trustee, can invite officers to work at their school, a police spokesperson said. Most SROs stay at the post for three years.

Ken Jeffers, the police board member who brought about the motion to suspend the program, said most officers wind up at schools in marginalized communities, suggesting students in more affluent areas of the city aren't likely to see officers in their hallways — even though there's crime there, too. (Jeffers later admitted he doesn't have a full list of where SROs are based.)

Jeffers questions what the optics of keeping police officers in hallways and cruisers in parking lots is doing for the reputation of those schools. The longtime activist said he's seen this play out in Chicago, where students he spoke with plainly told him they came from "bad schools."

'It's a learning opportunity for both sides'

Mireille Stapleton, a teacher at Etobicoke Collegiate in the city's west end, said as a black woman she knows there's work to be done to improve relations between the community and police, but the SRO program is often the only place for police officers and youth to engage.

We have no way of measuring the success of this program.- Anna Willats, police services board deputant

"This is it," she told the board, before being interrupted by someone in the crowd.

"You can 'Hmmm' all you want," Stapleton told her heckler. "It's a learning opportunity for both sides of this."

Anna Willats echoed that sentiment, although she wants the program to end. Having officers in schools sends the wrong message to students, she told the board, and makes some students feel unwelcome and unsafe.

Willats said she's been voicing concerns about the matter since 2008. The program hasn't been reviewed since 2011, and Willats said the appraisal was flawed.

"We have no way of measuring the success of this program," she said.

Will an outside review be able to give the police board enough statistics to make a firm decision about the SRO's future? Preliminary results are expected in August. (John Rieti/CBC)

The police board has already requested a third-party review to provide some hard facts about how the program is working, including potential comparisons of the number of incidents and arrests at schools with SROs and without.

An interim report is expected until August, with Mayor John Tory, who sits on the police board, suggesting it could result in some changes before the new school year starts.

Two earlier reports highlighted the Toronto program's success, suggesting students were having "positive" interactions with officers and that they were more likely to come forward with information about potential wrongdoing. An upcoming review of a similar program in Peel Region, conducted by a Carleton University professor, is also expected to show some benefits.

If program stays, so will tension, lawyer warns

By not suspending the SRO program, the board is heightening tensions between police and the community, lawyer Saron Gebresellassi warns. (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

On the other side, BLMTO and the group Education Not Incarceration point to a recent thesis paper by a student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education that calls for the elimination of the SRO program.

Lawyer Saron Gebresellassi, who has represented a number of black youth facing criminal charges for incidents that took place at SRO schools, said refusing to suspend the program will have consequences.

Gebresellassi, who also works with BLMTO, said, "it's going to result in increased tension between black families and the black community and the school board."


John Rieti

Senior producer

John started with CBC News in 2008 as a Peter Gzowski intern in Newfoundland, and holds a master of journalism degree from Toronto Metropolitan University. As a reporter, John has covered everything from the Blue Jays to Toronto city hall. He now leads a CBC Toronto digital team that has won multiple Radio Television Digital News Association awards for overall excellence in online reporting. You can reach him at

With files from Makda Ghebreslassie and Shannon Martin