The first School Resource Officer (SRO) programs began, unsurprisingly, in the United States. The goal of the first programs, started in Flint, Michigan during the 1950s, was to “improve relations between police and young people”. Despite the long history of these programs and their growing expansion to school districts all over the U.S. and Canada, a report by the International Center for Crime Prevention (ICCP) suggests that these programs have no long-term measurable benefit to student engagement or school safety.
If these programs have no measurable benefit, then why would Toronto Police Services (TPS) and the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) be spending invaluable financial and institutional capital on an SRO Program at a time when our schools and our students are in crisis?
The answer, according to the ICCP report, is the move made by most police forces in the 1990s towards “community policing”. In the wake of the release of the Falconer Report, in response to the shooting of Jordan Manners at C.W. Jeffries Collegiate Institute, Toronto's own champion of “community policing” Police Chief Bill Blair made his own pitch to the TDSB to install armed police officers in schools.
In keeping with the history of SRO programs, and despite the dire warnings of the Falconer report, about the urgent need to make schools safer places for students, teachers, and staff, the goal of Blair's program is not to make schools safer but to “improve relations between police and young people”.
Despite being explicitly part of the TPS's 'community policing' mandate, there was absolutely no community consultation before the pilot program was implemented in September 2008. The decision to create the program was made in a series of back-room meetings with members of the Safe and Caring Schools department of the TDSB and members of the TPS.
Not only was the program created without consultation, it explicitly ignores two major community consultations done at the cost of millions of precious taxpayer dollars. Both the Falconer Report on School Safety and the Curling-McMurtry report on the Roots of Youth Violence spent months talking with and listening to students, parents, teachers, and school support workers. Out of these direct and extensive consultations, both reports painted a picture of a system in critical need of repair, and outlined extensive and specific recommendations to both engage marginalized youth and make our schools safer. Not once did either report recommend putting armed and uniformed officers in schools.
In fact, the Curling-McMurtry report explicitly points to the racial profiling of racialized youth by Toronto police as a major contributing factor to the increased climate of fear for many youth:
“Many youth also told us that they felt uncomfortable walking through policed areas within their neighbourhoods for fear of being harassed. One senior civic official highlighted this for us when he explained that in one community the youth favoured the use of surveillance cameras in public areas because they created zones where the police did not harass the youth.”
While the TDSB is still struggling to come up with funds to hire the highly-trained youth and social workers recommended by the Falconer and Curling-McMurty Reports, the TPS has stepped in with funding to replace social workers with the very police officers many youth fear.
Despite explicit assurances that the SRO program is not about school safety, the TDSB continues to justify the program on the grounds that it's making schools safer. This February, the TDSB released its preliminary report on the 5-month-old SRO program. In glowing articles in both The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, school administrators as well as TDSB and TPS officials told seemingly charming stories about police officers staying late to coach teams and participating in school-wide events by dancing in tutus. Based on these stories and other “anecdotal” reports, journalists and administrators happily concluded that the program was so far a great success in making schools safer.
Not only did these stories ignore the numerous reports by students, teachers, and staff of police harassment and an increasing climate of fear and repression, but they also ignored the TDSB report's own data. While TDSB data shows a reduction in suspensions and police charges in schools with SROs, there is nothing to support the claim that these reductions are the direct result of the SRO's presence. Indeed, these drops are consistent with a similar drop in suspensions and police charges in schools without SROs, which have been credited to the changes made to the Safe Schools Act explicitly intended to reduce suspensions and the intervention of police.
There is only one significant difference when it comes to data comparing schools with and schools without SROs: while the report indicates a 24% drop in violent incidents board-wide, it shows a 15% increase in violent incidents in schools with SROs. (Officials blamed this increase in violence in SRO schools on two major incidents in two different schools, and then conveniently chose to exclude these two incidents from the data set because it “skewed” the results.)
With no contemporary or historical data to suggest SRO programs have any measurable benefit for students, and with much historical and contemporary data that suggests that increased police presence alienates and marginalizes many youth, both the TDSB and the TPS continue to struggle to come up with a rationale for the program. At a time when there is almost universal consensus on what our schools and students need, our police force and school board are spending precious time, energy and resources on a program whose stated goal is not to benefit students in need, but to benefit the police force itself.