'An important step': TDSB suspends program that put armed officers in schools

Trustees with the Toronto District School Board voted late Wednesday to suspend the program that put armed officers in three-dozen schools pending a board review.

School Resource Officers program, started in 2008, on hold until at least November

The Toronto District School Board has decided to suspend a program that put armed police officers in 36 of its 75 schools. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

A controversial program that put armed officers inside three-dozen Toronto public schools has been temporarily suspended, meaning cops won't be present when students head back to the classroom next week. 

Trustees with the Toronto District School Board voted late Wednesday to halt the School Resource Officers program until at least November as they survey staff and students, and also engage in community consultations.

"We really felt that we could not conduct that review in a situation where students might not feel that they were secure and confident in their anonymity to speak openly about how they felt about the program," trustee Marit Stiles told CBC Toronto Thursday morning.

The program was launched in 2008, the year after Jordan Manners was shot and killed at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate. He was 15.

'Not a full victory' but an 'important step'

Under the program, officers were deployed in 36 of 75 TDSB schools. However, activist groups such as Black Lives Matter Toronto have been demanding that the program be scrapped as one measure aimed at addressing anti-black racism in the education system.

The move comes just one week after the Toronto Police Services Board voted unanimously to have the program undergo a review by Ryerson University. 

Andrea Vasquez Jimenez, co-chair of the Latin American Education Network, was one of those elated by the decision Thursday. She says she cried tears of joy at the suspension of a program that she says especially hurt undocumented students.

Andrea Vasquez Jimenez, co-chair of the Latin American Education Network, was one of those elated by the decision Thursday. (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

"We've had administration call out their undocumented status in front of SRO's, in front of police officers," Vasquez Jimenez said. She says there is the fear of collaboration between Toronto police and the Canada Border Services Agency.

"It doesn't only affect the student and the youth within the classroom. We had to essentially move their whole family out of their home," Vasquez Jimenez said.

Black Lives Matter Toronto called the devision "not a full victory" but still "an important step forward."

The statement, posted to Facebook, was critical of the Police Services Board review, saying Black Lives Matter is "skeptical" of police involvement in that undertaking.

"It's time to hear from students themselves about their experiences with police surveillance, criminalization, profiling, and their experiences with armed police officers in their classrooms," the statement said. "The work has only begun."

Mayor disappointed by decision 

Not all applauded the decision, however.

Ethan Thompson. a student at Northern Secondary School, said the officer stationed there did more than just police work.

"I personally liked him. He wasn't a police officer to us. He came into our class and taught us about law and kind of gave us an inside scoop on his take. It wasn't really a police officer figure," said Thompson. "It was just a helpful, nice guy in our school."

Student Ethan Thompson at Northern Secondary School said he was sad to see the program suspended. (CBC)

Toronto Mayor John Tory meanwhile said Thursday that although he had voted in favour of reviewing the program, he was disappointed by the school board's decision.

"I thought the school board would do what we were doing at the Police Services Board, which is to have a very thorough review, which takes very particular account of some of the concerns that have been expressed in the negative about this program, listen to all points of view in all parts of the community, and then make a decision," Tory said.

"They've chosen to go a different route, which is to do away for now with a program that I think had some supporters, quite a few, and then do the review, which isn't the way I'd do it."

Meanwhile, Stiles said trustees wanted to take into account the fact that different students have different experiences in school.

"The idea that we have cops in schools with guns, it sends a certain message, and it's a very different message to some kids than to others," she said.

As part of the trustees' review, there will be three public meetings during the week of Sept. 18 to 24.

With files from Makda Ghebreslassie, The Canadian Press