Fireworks start early as police board meeting on future of cops in Toronto schools becomes heated
Protesters outside the overflowing auditorium at police headquarters — including many who were scheduled to speak — voiced their anger at being excluded
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An explosive meeting had been expected Thursday as the Toronto police board tackled the controversial issue of whether there should be armed officers in high schools.
The surprise was how fast the fireworks started — shortly after the first of 74 speakers scheduled to address the topic uttered his first words. Protesters from Black Lives Matter and other groups outside the overflowing auditorium at police headquarters — including many who were scheduled to address the board — voiced their anger at being excluded from the proceedings because there wasn’t enough space.
Within 10 minutes, chants from both outside and within shut the meeting down, with board members leaving the room for about 15 minutes until order was restored.
The fuss came after a motion that launched the debate, from Toronto Police Services Board member Ken Jeffers, who moved to suspend the nine-year-old School Resource Officer (SROs) program until a full review has been conducted, with a final report expected by Dec. 31. At the end of the long night, the board voted to defer a decision on the fate of the program until year-end.
Jeffers cited concerns about “normalization” of police in schools and issues raised by the community that schools with officers assigned to them feel stigmatized and profiled must be heard.
The board has a responsibility “to ensure everybody has a say in this matter,” he said.
Hours later, they were still having their say about the program, which has 36 uniformed officers assigned to 75 Toronto public and Catholic high schools.
At one heated point in the evening — as Jeffers struggled over heckling to propose a motion to suspend the program, pending consultation with community groups — came a tense exchange.
In response to a woman from the audience shouting at him about the history of Black citizens bleeding and suffering, an agitated Jeffers shot back.
“You die and you suffer? You ever had a bullet placed on you? In your face? You ever had a gun placed in your face?”
Some participants were equally unhappy about how the order of events unfolded.
“They need a bigger venue — they should have held this at City Hall,” complained Anna Willats of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition as she watched the melee unfold, which she called inevitable.
As one of the first speakers, Willats repeated the coalition’s longtime calls for an end to the SRO program, arguing the money spent — roughly $100,000 a year per officer — could be put to more constructive use. The group also argues the program was set up without a mechanism to properly assess its impact, and that the presence of police in schools changes the learning environment and can be counterproductive for many youth who feel intimidated.
She was followed by a stream of school principals, teachers and students who support the SRO program from diverse racial backgrounds and neighbourhoods. Most school delegations were from the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
Many described police officers who helped coach basketball, popped into classrooms and school events, intervened to prevent incidents between students erupting and helped students in distress.
Officers of different racial backgrounds described the importance of their roles both as police and parents.
Taijah Lawrence-Scott, 18, said the SRO during her years at York Memorial Collegiate “changed my life” and negative attitude toward police.
As a student there, she got to know the officer “as a person” and see police differently, she told the board.
He stepped in to prevent a fight when girls from another school came after her, and was a positive role model who cared about all students, she added later in an interview.
“I feel like police officers still should be in there.”
But several hours later, Syrus Marcus Ware of Black Lives Matter told the board “I’m very disheartened it took until 6:30 p.m. to hear the phrase ‘anti-Black racism.’ ”
Ware called for an end to the program because of the negative impact on some vulnerable students who are often too afraid to speak publicly and dismissed the idea of reviewing the program, saying it amounts to “a dangerous side tactic.”
Responding to the parade of positive presenters throughout the afternoon, Ware said critics aren’t against basketball and barbeques — but police aren’t the ones who should be organizing them.
Many groups who spoke later in the proceedings from the Black community and representing undocumented students told the board that even if the SRO program is popular in some communities, the voices of youth who feel targeted, monitored and unsafe must be equally heard.
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