News / Toronto

Chief urges review of program that puts armed police in Toronto schools

Following controversy over armed officers patrolling Toronto high schools, police chief Mark Saunders is asking his civilian board to approve plans for an independent review of the embattled School Resource Officer program.

Chief Mark Saunders' letter to the police board does not explicitly state that the review of the School Resource Officer program should determine whether it should be abolished.

RICK MADONIK / TORONTO STAR FILE

Chief Mark Saunders' letter to the police board does not explicitly state that the review of the School Resource Officer program should determine whether it should be abolished.

Following controversy over armed officers patrolling Toronto high schools, police Chief Mark Saunders is asking his civilian board to approve plans for an independent review of the embattled School Resource Officer program.

The review, to be conducted by Ryerson University at a cost of $80,000, would be completed by June of next year — though Saunders states that changes can be made at any point during the review.

At its June meeting, board members opted to defer a decision on the fate of the program until year’s end.

The divisive initiative, which sees 36 uniformed cops assigned to 75 schools across the city, was last evaluated by the Toronto police in 2011. An independent academic study of the nearly decade-old program has never been done.

In a letter to the Toronto police board in advance of Thursday’s meeting, Saunders detailed plans for the review, which he said must take into consideration “the variety of viewpoints of and experiences with the program,” with particular emphasis on students.

“With the Service’s current focus on modernization, community engagement, and ensuring the most effective and efficient use of police resources, an independent and thorough review and evaluation of this program is appropriate at this time,” Saunders said in the letter.

Controversy erupted over the program at the May police board meeting, after a group teachers and school workers addressed the board about serious concerns regarding officer presence in schools.

The group’s criticisms of the program included that racialized students felt harassed, that undocumented students were being asked their citizenship status by officers, and that the presence of police meant situations once handled by teachers or administrators were unnecessarily being criminalized.

“The School Resource Officer Program, for too many of our students, creates an unsafe environment,” James Campbell, a Toronto high school English teacher, said at the time.

The complaints led to an hours-long heated debate at the June board meeting, where 74 speakers signed up to passionately advocate for or against uniformed officers in schools. Those supportive of the program, including some school principals, teachers, and students described officers who coached basketball, helped co-ordinate extracurricular events, and intervened to prevent incidents between students.

Concerned about the “normalization” of cops in school, Toronto police board member Ken Jeffers suggested the program be immediately suspended until a full review could be conducted. But Jeffers had no support from his board colleagues, who instead decided to continue the program while a comprehensive, independent review could be conducted.

According to Saunders’ letter, the review will gather input through meetings with community groups and students. Saunders, police board chair Andy Pringle and another member of the board will head up the review’s steering committee, with representatives from school boards, student groups and Ryerson University forming a review committee.

The letter states the evaluation should examine the purpose of the program; the responsibilities of officers assigned to schools; funding commitment; and the possibility of officers working in a non-uniform capacity.The review is also expected to seek out best practices in similar programs on a national and international scale.

Saunders’ letter does not explicitly state that the review should determine whether the program should be abolished, something opponents of the program have been demanding, including Black Lives Matter, Education Not Incarceration, and Latinx, Afro-Latin-America Abya Yala Education Network (LAEN).

The Star reported in June that an independent study of police officers in Peel high schools concluded their presence reduced risks of bullying and harm, lowered student stress, improved attendance and made teens feel safer.

However, opponents says decision-makers must also listen to the lived experience of students and youth who have been negatively impacted by having police in schools.

The Toronto police board will discuss Saunders’ letter at its meeting Thursday.

Wendy Gillis can be reached at wgillis@thestar.ca

More on Metronews.ca