Sewell: Cop culture conflicts with school culture

2.1002289.sewellThere’s nothing like real life experience to sharpen one’s perceptions about the real world. That has happened in spades with the issue of police in schools.

In mid-October, less than two weeks after police made their presence felt in Northern Secondary School, an incident occurred there which was caught on video tape and viewed by tens of thousands of Torontonians. (Northern is on Mount Pleasant Avenue, just north of Eglinton, and it’s the high school for some kids in The Bulletin’s readership neighbourhoods. It’s large, with about 1,200 students.)

As best as one can tell from what the various players have said, it seems that a student may have made a flip (and perhaps derogatory) remark to the police officer assigned to the school—the same officer some students claim had earlier told students he didn’t get upset at being called names. The student quickly found himself up against the wall with the officer trying to handcuff him.

In short order the student was charged with assault with intent to resist arrest, and was then suspended.

As Northern students have told me, if the incident had happened with a teacher, the student probably would have received a detention and nothing more. Teachers know how to deal with students, and realize that teenagers can say the craziest and dumbest things.  Teachers don’t overreact when that happens.

But having a police officer on the premises raises the stakes considerably. The cop has been trained to maintain order—make sure no one is acting out of line—and show that authority exists. Has he been trained to relate well to flippant teenagers? On the video, he is a cop acting as he would in the toughest neighborhoods.

The consequences for this student have been extreme: He has been removed from Northern and his friends, and is now subject to a criminal trial which could result in a conviction which would make it hard for him to get a job and probably wreck his life.

This is not right.

It has also been pointed out that when a police officer is monitoring the hall, then the normal social controls exercised by teachers and school officials are thrown out the window.  The teachers and officials withdraw and leave it to the cops. So the police end up running the school, not the principal and staff.

This is wrong.

There is more to the story.

Some students at Northern decided that since there had been no public process or discussion before police were assigned to the school—it was a deal cooked up privately by Trustee Josh Matlow, the senior administrators, and the police—they would hold a demonstration to protest police in their school.

School officials immediately starting applying pressure to stop the demo. One student was threatened with suspension, although he refused to cancel the demo and the officials backed down. Imagine if a student had been suspended for arranging an event seeking student opinion. That would have been pretty astounding.

Trustee Matlow intervened to try to stop the demo. The students had invited me to speak—I have been taking the position that we need a public meeting or two at the school to start talking about the issue—and Matlow called me up to ask me to cancel the demo, and if I did, he would call a public meeting.  I said he should arrange the public meeting, that would be good, but so far he hasn’t done that.

He then said I was trying to make the issue “political.” I told him police in schools is a big political issue even if he tried to pretend it wasn’t. It consumes a lot of public money and it changes the way schools operate. That’s big politics.

When the students wouldn’t back down, the school decided to schedule a free movie and a cheap lunch in the cafeteria at the same time as the demo to distract students. School officials said it was a United Way event, but as one student told me, “United Way events are there to raise money and this consisted of a free movie and a cheap lunch. It doesn’t add up.”

The demonstration was held. About 200 students were around, some in support, some just watching. It was successful, and students said their piece. Neither the school nor Matlow have agreed to hold a public consultation so the issue isn’t resolved.

All in all, it is a sad train of events. The schools should immediately agree to work with the students to arrange several public forums to discuss whether there should be police in Northern. And the police should withdraw the charge against the student. Those two moves would get us back to some sanity on this issue.