Advocates against returning embedded police to schools amid rise in violent incidents

As the TDSB tackles safety concerns at York Memorial, the school board is reporting an overall rise in school violence. Shauna Hunt reports.

By Shauna Hunt and Meredith Bond

As the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) works to find a solution to violence and safety issues at York Memorial Collegiate Insititue and other schools, the debate over whether to reintroduce controversial school resource officers (SROs) took centre stage at a meeting on the issue.

A TDSB safety report shows rising rates of violence on school property, with this school year on track to have the highest number of violent incidents of the 23 years that data has been collected.

The report notes this mirrors Toronto police data showing an increase in youth violence city-wide.

“Based on available data as well as most recent developments, it is of critical importance that the board continue to act with great urgency to address issues of school and community safety,” states the report.

The TDSB has not proposed reinstating school resource officers, a program that was scrapped in 2017 after years of community advocacy and study. However, the topic dominated a four-and-a-half hour special meeting Monday night.

“These students were calling for funding for supplies, resources for funding clubs and fields trips and learning materials they were calling for more classroom support and were specifically calling for less policing,” said Donovan Hayden, an organizer with Progress Toronto, who spoke at the meeting.

“Police officers in schools or on a regular basis – that’s not going to solve the issue we are all concerned with,” said another speaker.

York Memorial students, staff, speak out about unsafe environment

At a walk-out protesting their learning conditions held Dec. 2, York Memorial students specifically mentioned that their learning was often disrupted by armed officers entering the building, and that they feel over-surveilled by police while attending school.

“We are kids! We are kids who come for an education and can’t get one because there is no structure,” said one student.

Earlier this month, CityNews spoke with staff members at York Memorial anonymously, who said the school is on the brink of a crisis due to fights in the hallways, violence against teachers and weapons.

Both staff members were adamant that the majority of the students are great, and it’s only around 100 students who are causing the issue: “This is a small number of students who are hijacking everyone’s learning and teaching environment.”

A few weeks ago, 14 teachers conducted a one-day work refusal campaign to call attention to the safety issues.

The Ministry of Labour investigated claims of an unsafe work environment. CityNews received a copy of the an investigation from a source. In it, several staff allege there was a “jump list,” and staff feared they were going to be attacked.

It also noted some students wore balaclavas to be unidentifiable. The labour investigator ordered the school board to conduct a full violence risk assessment by Dec. 9.

Working on school community solutions

In a letter sent home to parents of York Memorial students, TDSB outlined a number of steps currently being taken to address some of the issues at the schools expierencing safety issues including adding more permanent teachers and counselling supports, virtual learning opportunities and staggering exit times.

The board is also establishing a system for reporting racism.

These steps towards addressing some of the issues were also reitereated in the Community Safety Report from TDSB.

The board didn’t mention SROs in the safety report. However, the report states the board will continue to work with Toronto police in ways which promote school and community safety including “police presence at/in schools when deemed necessary based on school and community feedback.”

The report goes on to state that “school safety is not established with the implementation of a singular program or installation of security equipment. Effective school safety caters to students’ mental health; ensuring physical and psychological safety; and engaging various stakeholders like school administrators, students, teachers, families, and communities as partners.”

The Toronto Youth Council (TYC) is also urging the TDSB to leave the SRO program in the past. However, the organization says there has not been enough done, since SROs were removed from schools five years ago, to address the root causes of community violence.

“We look at Toronto’s unemployment rate, it’s the worst in Ontario. With Black and Indigenous young people, those rates are far worse for them,” noted Stephen Mensah with the TYC. “Poverty is high; and food insecurity; the mental health crisis has just been exacerbated. How can we be quick to police our way out of this crisis when we haven’t even taken the tangible measures to improve young people’s conditions?”

With files from Jessica Bruno

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