Sewell: Do cops really belong in schools?

By John Sewell – 

2.1002289.sewellPolice are expanding their presence from 22 to 36 public high schools, and from eight to 12 Catholic high schools in Toronto. In the Catholic system, that means there are police in half the high schools; in the public system, police are in 40% of schools. That’s a big spread from no police presence in schools just 12 months ago. We are probably headed the way of New York City, which started with cops in just a few schools and now has a police presence in virtually all schools.

Those elected to make decisions about how schools are run, our trustees of both school boards, have never voted to approve these changes. In fact they have done everything they could to avoid such a vote. Instead, the change is the result of an informal arrangement between Toronto police and school officials.

Putting police in schools was originally done for perceived reasons of safety, although Julian Falconer, who had been asked to study schools safety after the shooting death of Jordan Manners in a school stairway three years ago, never suggested that police in schools would solve any problems, and has since said he opposes the idea.

But now other justifications are used. Peter Barrans, the safe school officer for the Catholic board, was recently quoted by The Catholic Registrar as saying “the primary purpose of the program is not safety, but on building positive relationships between schools, students and police.” John Campbell, chair of the public board, said much the same on a recent radio show. Police chief Bill Blair says the program is just an extension of the idea of community policing.

Perhaps one reason why no one uses issues of crime or safety as the justification is that there are no data to suggest that the presence of an officer either reduces crime or improves safety. It’s something of a scandal that the program has been operational for a full school year but no one has collected any data (or if collected, it has not been released) on what the impact of police in schools has been. There is no hard information of the impact for the year on crime, safety, or even any change in relationships and understanding between police and students. The decision-makers are flying blind.

Campbell has said staff have been requested to collect data, but he’s unclear when it will be available. And who knows what it will be about? Campbell agrees that no surveys have been done about what impact police presence has had. In the interim, the justification is that the police will learn to have a better relationship with youth.

None of these police-equipped schools are in the Downtown area. The nearest Toronto schools with police are Eastern Commerce, Danforth, and Northern. Almost all the schools with police (in both the public and Catholic systems) are in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke. Is that because Downtowners would object to a police presence in schools? Do police who work Downtown already have a good relationship with youth and so they don’t need to be located in schools? Are Downtown schools too “middle class” to accept this intrusion by the criminal law enforcer?

This is a very expensive experiment. The cost of a Toronto police officer is about $100,000 a year, for pay, pension, supervision, and equipment. So the cost for 48 schools is almost $5 million. That’s a lot of tax dollars to educate police in relating better to youth. One suspects students might do better if instead of police, schools hired another 48 social workers, guidance counselors, librarians, or music teachers.

Currently the experience of many Toronto youth, particularly youth of colour, is that they are often stopped on the street by police for no good reason and questioned and frisked. Many think things would improve if they were just treated with more respect by police.

One friend put it this way: Suppose a police officer was posted to your work place. You would wonder what the officer was doing there. Snooping around? Trying to learn secrets? Attempting to pick up information? When the officer said he was just trying to improve his relationship with you and your fellow employees, you would look askance. You would probably complain.

That’s how many students must feel. Students are required to be in school— it is their work—and then they find there’s this person there for the purpose of being friendly to you. You can understand them being skeptical. Calling the officer a “school resource officer” as the two school boards do, doesn’t change the situation one bit.

We need to get a lot more serious about how we are using police resources, and the extraordinary amounts of money we are spending on police for so little return. Jumping to the conclusion that a uniformed armed police officer will solve some problems just by being there is acting dumber than any education system would permit. We need to be a lot more careful about imposing un-thought-out and untested ideas on our youth in the name of looking out for their best interests.