By: Hargun Grewal
The presence of police in Ontario schools have existed through the guise of School Resource Officers (SRO), however, many have questioned this practice of allowing these liaison programs to continue. This practice was fairly uncommon prior to the 1990s and has since been questioned due to deeply rooted historical mistrust with law enforcement and their interactions with people of color, predominantly Black and Indigenous populations. Contemporary events today have demonstrated a persistent resistance toward police in schools through collective public and organizing. Most notable are the cases of the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) and Peel District School Board (PDSB) terminating their SRO programs in the summer months of 2020. The main issue at hand is the question of whether police officers are required in schools through SRO or liaison programs to ensure safety or if there are grounds for their termination based on the experiences of students.
The Ministry states that “all school boards and police services in Ontario are required to have a local police/school board protocol in place to guide police involvement in schools.” commonly referred to as the “Provincial Model for a Local Police/School Board Protocol”. This protocol exists to ensure there is a standard outlined to handle school lockdowns or threats, however, no legislation currently exists that states schools are required to have officers present within them in order to ensure safety or security of their staff or students. Measures to ensure the safety of Ontario schools has predominantly been accomplished through the implementation of policy such as the Ontario Safe Schools Act (OSSA) in 2000. Although OSSA makes no mention of police within any of its sections, it can be argued that a major by-product of the act were the following SRO or police liaison program implemented within schools intending to achieve a heightened level of “safeness”.
A review examining OSSA with regard to discipline and discrimination was conducted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) in July of 2003. The report highlighted a study, Racial and Ethnic Minority High School Students’ Perceptions of School Disciplinary Practices: A Look at Some Canadian Findings, which aimed to examine whether differential treatment in relation to school disciplinary practices occurred amongst Toronto high school students. The study found that “racial minority students, particularly Black students, are much more likely than White students to perceive discrimination with respect to teacher treatment, school suspension practices, the use of police by school authorities, and police treatment at school.” Overall, the OHRC did find that in Ontario “there is a strong perception supported by some empirical evidence that the Act and school board policies are having a disproportionate impact on racial minority students, particularly Black students, and students with disabilities.”
A review was conducted of the TDSB police program which included a survey of roughly 15,000 students. The results indicated that although half of the students surveyed said the SRO programs made them safer, over 2000 students said they felt intimidated by SROs and over 1000 said they felt uncomfortable attending school due to the program’s implementation. This review was consistent with the findings made by an academic study which determined that there are two groups of students, ones who feel safe with SROs and those who do not. The study states that “that interacting with SROs was unrelated to these feelings of safety; instead, African American students and victimized students felt less safe while males, students with more school connectedness, and students with more positive attitudes about SROs felt safer.”
There is an overwhelming amount of evidence to suggest that SROs and police programs within schools have an adverse effect regarding how safe students feel especially those from marginalized backgrounds. Due to this, and the fact that there is no legal requirement for school boards to have police within schools, a case can be made for removing them from schools and moves for their termination have been successful. Hamilton Students for Justice (Formerly HWDSB Kids Need Help) led the charge of ensuring that action was taken by the HWDSB through holding consultations of current students, gathering concerns of the school community, organizing protests, and pushing council members to vote on the decision. In another school board, the Peel Police said they would be pausing their SRO program with the PDSB until a review of it could be conducted along with consultations of community members such as the Black Community Action Network of Peel (BCAN). Upon the review “it was decided the program will not resume largely due to concerns related to systemic racism, and the disproportionately punitive effects this type of traditional programming can produce.”
Substantive equity should be considered after all the data is considered and student experiences are evaluated. It is clear that there are student populations who are disproportionately impacted by the presence of police within schools and, regardless of whether the population is large or a majority, it is clear that the implementation of SRO programs impacts their right to attend school by not feeling safe in doing so. A question all school boards across Ontario and arguably the country should be grappling with now is whether the implementation of the SRO program is worth the fear and intimidation experienced by specific student populations.
Hargun Grewal is in his final year at McMaster University. He has been a student intern with Battick Legal since September 2020.