The SRO program

Whose experiences are we centring?

Around Ontario, school boards have been opting to remove police officers stationed at schools, a program known under a few different names, but most commonly as the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. These terminations have occurred because grassroots community advocacy and activists have called to centre the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and other racialized students as well as undocumented students who feel unsafe or uncomfortable with police in schools. It was an honour to be a part of the local Toronto movement that began this province-wide and international campaign to stop police officers from being stationed in schools.

I am a Latinx individual with Indigenous ancestry. I grew up in Toronto and over the past few years, have been listening and learning about experiences around Ontario and Turtle Island. In Toronto, I am a lead guidance counsellor in a low-income and highly racialized area, supporting Black, Latinx, and many racialized students through barriers within our education system. I attempt to use my privileged position to bring stories not often heard in dominant spaces to the forefront. That is what I hope to do here.

I am not without my own stories. For high school, my family moved to a wealthy area in Toronto called Richmond Hill. At the age of 15, I was stopped by the police before entering my house because my friends and I looked “suspicious.” I was asked—at the time I felt I was forced—to show my identification that proved I lived in my home. The cops then apologized and explained the suspicion saying they were being cautious. I was left confused but didn’t think anything of it since it seemed normal at the time. Racism should not be normal.

At the age of 24, I was driving my Chevrolet Volt and was stopped by the police. The reason for the stop, apparently, was that I was driving “suspiciously” and the cop was concerned the car was stolen. I showed my documentation and was allowed to leave. I questioned this interaction in my own mind but continued without an official complaint because again, it seemed normal. Racism should not be normal.

There have been various incidents of police racism that my friends and I have experienced; we knew they were messed up, but we continued on with our lives as though they were normal. From having multiple police cars at a small reggaeton charity party, to having police officers repeatedly question friends because they “matched the description of the suspect,” racism is a normal part of life for many of us. Although I am well aware of my rights now, and understand the privilege I have as a light-skinned individual who is viewed as a professional by dominant society, I still get uncomfortable around police officers.

In 2012, I began a partnership program, Student Connections, between York University’s Black Student Alliance, the Organization of Latin American Students, and my home school. The idea was to build relationships between secondary and university students who have similar experiences of marginalization. Part of the program was that the students would visit the university and get tutored in their academic areas of need. One day, I received a phone call from the supervisor on-site: “there’s been an issue with the police.”

Students were tutored on the third floor, and a couple of students were hanging out by the stair railings that look down on the first floor. They accidentally bumped a bag on the railing which fell to the first floor and landed near some police officers. The officers angrily went up to the third floor and, according to the student and supervisor reports, started threatening students with attempted murder charges. Keep in mind these students were attempting to break down barriers to get into university. The officers resorted to saying the students would not be allowed on York University property again. This was an empty threat the police had no power to enforce. But it was still a threat.

When I received the call, I immediately asked the supervisor to get all witnesses to write statements and inform parents. We went through the proper processes with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), but our understanding was that a thorough investigation was done and complaints were dismissed because of an independent third witness who discounted the allegations. This is why many of us don’t trust the system.

This trust of the system has been deteriorated for many Black, Indigenous, and racialized people through their stories of oppression. Desmond Cole, Black activist and author of The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, says it best: “We demand justice and we get process.” Nations like Canada were built on ideologies of white supremacy and colonialism and thus, those ideologies permeate throughout our systems. A great podcast to learn more about this is Canadaland’s COMMONS (The Police episodes).

Schools should be places of nourishment, development, and anti-oppression with caring adults. Police officers are held to their own standard through their own institutions. In schools, they may work with administration to attempt to support students, but they must answer to their own policies and procedures. The policing system contradicts what we want our education system to be.

This is not to say there should not be consequences for actions within education. However, an education model should look at those consequences through the lens of nourishment, development, and anti-oppression with caring adults, and not punishment. We should encourage transformative and restorative justice and not facilitate a school to prison pipeline.

I encountered a situation that illustrates the clash between the policing institution and the education institution. Under the Education Act, students without legal immigration status in Canada, undocumented students, have a right to education. In one of my past schools there was an undocumented student who was a school leader. Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) officers were looking for them and asked our local SRO if the student was at the school. The SRO had to comply with the CBSA officer despite knowing that students should learn in peace and not with fear of being deported at school. This resulted in the CBSA officer waiting just outside school property. An SRO in a school directly contradicts the sanctuary status of the school because of their active partnership with CBSA. A great resource about this issue is No One Is Illegal’s report Often Asking, Always Telling.

It’s not an opinion whether police in schools cause harm. While some may debate it theoretically, to the student that sits across from me in my guidance office describing the police brutality that they experienced, or the student who has their home or neighbour’s home raided at 4 a.m. in the morning, or the student who is frequently interrogated while walking home, there is no debate to the triggering effect that occurs when a police officer is stationed in a school.

It becomes a question of whose experiences are we centring.

A Toronto District School Board (TDSB) report that recommended the termination of the local SRO program demonstrated that the majority of students felt safe with a police officer at the school. However, 11 per cent said the presence of a police officer intimidated them, and 14 per cent said they felt watched and targeted. This is not a majority vs. minority issue. It’s an issue where students who are already facing other barriers and marginalization feel unsafe or uncomfortable with police officers, directly contradicting the type of learning environment we want to create for our students.

I have heard some people attempt to tackle this problem through reformative approaches, supporting the improvement of police-community relationships. However, it is my belief, and the belief of many Black and Indigenous activists and advocates, that it is not the school’s responsibility to tackle that issue and the policing institution must take responsibility and show commitment to that on their own (if it’s even possible). We have enough equity and anti-oppression issues to tackle as education workers than to commit time and resources to other institutions.

Another comment I frequently hear is: “That’s not the case in my school/area. Police have fine relationships with students and the community.” While I would not claim to know those relationships everywhere, I think it goes back to: “Whose experiences are we centring?” What do students with experiences in the justice system think of police? Students living in poverty? Black and Indigenous students? Students who skip class and engage in delinquent behaviour? Students who are self medicating using substances that can lead to addiction or dependence? Refugees from police-states or undocumented students? If we want to close the opportunity gap in our schools, it’s important to centre these students in our decisions and take an equity-focused approach and analysis to any research. This is what we, as community members, encouraged the TDSB to do as they conducted and published their report recommending termination. This move was applauded and reported internationally, with reporters and activists from the United States reaching out to organizers for guest speaking events and deeper learning.

It’s important to note that schools have many types of relationships with local law enforcement. This article is specifically critiquing the type of relationship where police officers are stationed at a school or stationed at multiple schools. However, my hope is that the critique in this article can be used to examine other types of relationships and we can move closer to having schools that engage every student through transformative and restorative justice.

About Derik Chica
Derik Chica is a teacher in District 12, Toronto and is a member of the Black Persons and Persons of Colour Advisory Work Group and is a vice-chair on the Educational Services Committee.

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