By Muniyra Douglas
Transcribed By Shira Ragosin
The School Resource Officer (SRO) program was created in 2008 as part of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy. The program, which served to connect youth in school with SRO’s, came to end a decade later.
Following recommendations from staff of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), early in the school year in 2017, a six-week review took place, which included input from staff, students, parents and community members.
In this interview, VIBE Talks Correspondent Muniyra Douglas talks to Rodney Diverlus, Co-founder - Black Lives Matter Toronto. Black Lives Matter Toronto was just one of the many organizations and associations that have been advocating against this decade long program.
Rodney shares with us his insight as a community member, and why he thinks this program was brought to an end.
Muniyra: Why was this program so contested and so controversial?
Rodney: When we think about the School Resource Officer (SRO) program, it’s really important to look back at history and how it was put in. The SRO program was actually placed in as a band-aid solution. It was ten years ago when the tragic killing of Jordan Manners happened in TDSB schools. There was a review that was done of schools, of safety generally. The review found that generally schools needed more safe and caring adults to ensure safety. It called for more social workers, it called for more guidance counselors, and it called for more funding to support teaching. It actually looked at the education system as a whole and recognized that we were failing students. In the funding cuts, we were failing students by removing adults on school, and we were failing students by not thinking about safety holistically.
[Contd} The response though, that the community got, was the placement of cops in school. This was done without the consultation from the community; this was done without even asking parents is this something you want. This was done without even consultation in from the TDSB. It was a snap reaction. So from the beginning onward, this was a program that actually wasn’t wanted by people and the community. And the community really thought it was shoved down our throats. In the ten years that its existed no one to this day, including supporters of the program, including the (Toronto) Police Services Board, including the police themselves, still to this day haven't actually been able to prove to community that this is effective. Has it really actually proved to community, that this program is creating more safe campuses? But in fact what were seeing is the opposite. We’re seeing students feeling threatened. We’re seeing the school-to-prison pipeline be activated. We’re seeing six year olds getting handcuffed for tantrums. Really the community and generally us, we oppose programs that are meant to criminalize young people. We oppose programs that aren’t seeing the innocence in young people. And we also really believe that the way to deal with adolescence behaviour is through intervention, it’s through prevention, and it’s through ensuring that our education systems are holistic.
Muniyra: Do you think this is going to change in the future and how the TDSB is going to make decisions for students and for their schools?
Rodney: Absolutely. I think that this actually sets an incredible precedent to our institutions, to really look at how do we respond to tragedy. Tragedy happens, you know. And when tragedy happens it’s actually always important to go and listen to what are the needs of people on the ground. How are they wanting you to respond to said tragedy? And you know the TDSB has really come a long way, and they’ve acknowledged and they’ve recognized their mistakes in doing that. It was really interesting to be at the board meetings and to hear from TDSB trustees that were around, back when this happened, and staff that were around, trying to talk to each other publically, and saying: “Oh do we even remember how this was put together?” And there’s even disagreement among folks that were around that said: “Was it emotion? Was it ever even voted on? How was it actually processed?” I think as institutions, they have responsibilities to ensure that they are listening to the ground and they’re actually having their ears to the needs of communities. And if you're going to do something as drastic as introduce guns, introduce armed police officers, armed security guards pretty much at a school then you best be really confident that this is something that people really wanted. What we saw with the decision and what we see often with the decision, and what we see often with the decision to allocate police offices or certain measures is we’re moving in reactionary phases. Often times we feel as if these decisions are made out of a response to something, they’re decisions that are snap, but they’re not actually fully thought of. And then what happens ultimately is that money is spent, ten years of agitating, ten years of organizing, literally active resistance happening within and outside of of the TDSB to remove them, and it was just an incredible waste of resources and waste of time. So I think this will set a precedent that if institutions are wanting to enact measures that go against the very values that they do or against the norms, they have to make sure that these actually are things wanted by the community. They have to be community led and driven; otherwise community will reject them whether it’s now or ten years later.
Muniyra: Did you ever get a chance to speak with any students whose schools were a part of this program?
Rodney: Part of our engagement with this campaign was really going down to the ground, and speaking to parents, speaking to community members, and speaking to students as well. Because the student perspective is important and the parent perspective is also equally as important as well. The TDSB conducted their review from an equity lens, meaning that they knew that if they went across the board and asked every single student in the TDSB, the realistic reality is that the vast majority of students probably did feel good about the SRO program. But from an equity perspective it meant actually addressing and looking at who are the students that are the most impacted by this program. Students that actually don't participate in reviews. Students that actually feel like their voices are never heard. Students that stop coming to school because they don’t feel supported. It was really important for us to actually go down and to talk to those students because one was too many. Schools are meant to be protective and supportive of everyone. When you speak to a student, and you speak to someone who’s 17, and this was the case when I talked to a 17 year old and I thought: “You're already so disillusioned. You’re experience in your understanding of what the role of policing is, is already so tainted by your negative experiences with them.” Students said: “We actually don’t feel supported by our principle, we don’t feel supported by our schools. We feel like this whole system is out to get us and it’s against us and I want nothing to do with it.” That’s incredibly tragic to hear that from someone that still has so much future left. To hear that jadedness in the feeling of being unsupported because they’re coming to school and they feel like this officer is constantly harassing them, is constantly watching them. They’re constantly feeling as if anything they do, whether it’s joking around with friends, could result in their arrest, as opposed to their suspension or detention like anybody else. When you hear those stories, they’re actually pretty heartbreaking.
Muniyra: The Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack was mentioned in The Star. I’m paraphrasing, but he did mention that: “It was a big lose for students and community policing, because the officers were not there to lay charges, but to help resolve issues.” Considering all that and considering the fact that there were many community members that came out that were against this, and even after hearing all of them say what they had to say, what are your thoughts on having an individual to still come out and be against this ruling?
Rodney: Every time I hear a statement from the Toronto police association, I get more and more disillusioned, and more and more disappointed. And I get more and more angry to be honest with you. And the reasoning is because they’re not listening, right? If you're an institution and you’re saying: “I want to do community policing, I want to get community trust,” that means listening to community. That means listening for community to dictate where they want you, how they want you to show up, and how they want you to engage with themselves. So we often times face a wall when we’re engaging with the Toronto Police Association because their response is often defensive and it’s often [them saying]: “We want to do by community.” And the community is saying: “If you want to do good by us just listen to us. That’s all you need to do,” literally the answers were all there; there was nothing new that was being said. Instead of being worried about budget allocations, instead of worrying about what this looks like for optics, I’d much rather a police association say: “Ok we haven't done right by you, what can we do to do right by you,” rather then going at business as usual.
[Contd] I also think that Mike McCormack’s answer is very evident of what happened ten years ago. Where you know community was saying: “Hold up,” the TDSB was saying: “Hold up,” even the Falkner Report (there was an ad-hoc body that was struck after the tragedy, look at safety and created 127 recommendations). They were like: “Hold up.” So everyone was saying: “Hold up, this isn’t the answer,” but the police saw an opportunity to increase their force. They saw an opportunity to have presence somewhere else, and to be honest, saw an opportunity to continue the work that they were doing. And I think it’s really important to have your ears on the ground and that way the onus is actually on the police to gain the trust of people. Trust is a two way street, if the institutions trust us, that we’ll follow the law or follow the rule, we need to trust you that you will listen to us. We need to trust you that you won't come criminalize and kill our children, and we need to trust you that you have our best interest in mind. The onus is on the police and the Toronto police association to do by right by community.
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