Police school program: hit-and-miss with teens
Sandie Benitah, ctvtoronto.ca
Published Saturday, October 24, 2009 8:27PM EDT
Toronto police have a vision.
One day -- and one day soon -- teens will no longer consider police officers as the natural enemy but rather as an ally in the community. Instead of protecting their friends from the law, Toronto's youth will turn to the neighbourhood cop with any troubling information.
Teens from across the city, from the marginalized neighbourhood to the uppity ones, will respect and appreciate the badge and the uniform instead of running away from it the way they do now.
That is the vision of the Toronto Police School Resource Officer program, but critics say that vision is nothing more than a dream.
It must be said that the SRO program -- which sees police officers placed in schools alongside students in a bid to strengthen relations with teens -- has seen a fair bit of success in several municipalities across North America.
But the initiative is fairly new in Toronto, having started in 2008 with 29 schools taking part. The program expanded in 2009 to include more than 50 schools.
Is it a success so far? Toronto police say it undoubtedly is.
Advocacy groups say the program is as damaging as it is beneficial.
Students however, seem to be approaching the program with caution. They are proud to acknowledge the positive changes the SRO brings to schools, but they are also quick to laugh at the notion that the long-standing discord between teens and police will ever change for good.
Exhavian Jasha, an 18-year-old Grade 12 student, has just transferred to Stephen Leacock Collegiate Institute in Scarborough. He's got first-hand experience with police, having been thrown out of his old high school and criminally charged after throwing a book at a teacher.
Nonetheless, Jasha says the officer inside Stephen Leacock is "cool, chill."
"I don't have any problems with him and he doesn't have any problems with me," he said, standing outside the school for a cigarette break.
His attitude towards the officer is drastically different than the resentment he displayed when talking about police in general.
"Personally I don't like cops," he said, taking a drag from his cigarette. "I've been questioned a lot."
He said police have often stopped him and his friends on the street to ask them where they were at a certain time, or if they are carrying any drugs.
He has never been questioned by the school officer and has had nothing but positive interaction with him. However, Jasha said he doesn't believe the officer is simply there to reach out.
"It's like they're not there to look out for you but are looking at you," he said. "It's all [B.S.] that they're trying to get to know me. They're here to do their job."
Bridging the gap
Reaching out to youth is absolutely the officer's job, said Mark Pugash, spokesperson for Toronto police, in a telephone interview with ctvtoronto.ca.
"These (school resource) officers have set up after-school homework programs, have started coaching school sports teams...they've become real mentors," he said.
"What is absolutely clear is that relationships of trust are being formed."
Pugash said the SRO program never intended for cops to become hall monitors. The officers are there to become an active part of school life -- to provide not only a presence but a mentorship role.
So far the response from the community has been great, he said. Toronto police have heard from thousands of students as well as parents, staff members and administrators who say they are pleased with the program, said Pugash.
The SRO program is one of many ways Toronto police have tried to bridge the gap between the force and the youth. For the last four years, the service has hired teens from Toronto's at-risk neighbourhoods to work at police stations throughout the summer. Officers also regularly schedule friendly games of ball hockey or basketball against local teens.
Under Police Chief Bill Blair, the service has put a great emphasis on community policing, having uniformed officers assigned to specific neighbourhoods so that they become familiar faces to people who live in the community.
Blair said in an interview with CTV Toronto on Thursday that the SRO program has been met with "some level of resistance."
"There are some people who still have questions about what we're doing there," he said.
"The program will continue to grow and evolve as we learn lessons and get greater acceptance from students involved."
Cops cool, snitching's not
The program has worked magic on teens like 17-year-old Usher Farooq, who says he now wants to become a cop after getting to know his school resource officer.
"I'm not kidding, I really do want to become a cop," he said "The officer talks to us, he's friendly."
"He's a proper guy, trustworthy," chimes in his friend Surkhail Kamal, who is also in Grade 12.
Farooq and Kamal are sitting in the food court of Woodside Square mall with several of their buddies. It's lunchtime at Albert Campbell Collegiate Institute and the food court is packed with dozens of teens who have crossed the street to get something to eat at the mall.
"Before there used to be tons of initiations, fights at lunch time or after school," Farooq said. "Now (the officer) stands at the crosswalk. That's where the fights used to happen and now they don't happen as much as before."
Kamal said the SRO program would benefit every high school, to help get students on the right path.
The teens said they didn't always have this positive attitude towards police.
"Honestly, I thought they were assholes," said Farooq. "I'd be chillin' with my friends and they'd harass me for no reason."
"The cop in our school is normal, he's the complete opposite of that," he added.
Kamal said he's even felt comfortable enough asking the officer for some legal advice.
Nonetheless, the teens hesitated when they were asked if they'd feel comfortable telling the school resource officer about rumours of fights, drugs or any other troubling information.
"If someone was being bullied then for sure I would, but probably not if it was between two people," said Farooq. "I'd let them sort it out themselves."
Outta sight, outta trouble
At Newtonbrook Secondary School in North York, it seems as if the attitude towards "snitching" is the same.
"Absolutely not. I would never tell him," said one student, laughing at the idea of turning to the school officer with information. "This guy would make it too big of a deal."
His friend simply shakes his head in agreement with a dead serious stare in his eye.
The Grade 12 students, who didn't want their names published, were standing outside the school in the rain having a cigarette. They said they think the SRO program is pointless, though both young men did not have anything bad to say about the officer assigned to their school.
"He doesn't reach out to me and I don't reach out to him," said the first teen.
The teen said students know not to get in trouble when the officer is around but that all is fair game when they're off school property and the officer is nowhere to be seen.
"He's just an obstacle, people work around him," he said. "(Having him there) doesn't reduce fights, it just doesn't happen in front of him."
Picking fights and committing violence is exactly why a report on safe schools recommended an increased investment in guidance counsellors, social workers and youth outreach professionals, said human rights lawyer Julian Falconer.
"These professionals are trained to let youth unleash their baggage," he said. "There are schools where essential groundwork needs to be done before placing a uniform in the school."
Falconer authored a report on school safety in 2008 that was commissioned by the Toronto District School Board. The report was commissioned after 15-year-old Jordan Manners was gunned down inside his North York-area high school in May, 2007.
Falconer made more than 100 recommendations in the report, none of which suggested placing uniformed police officers inside Toronto high schools.
"Other obvious solutions haven't been employed," he said.
Aside from increasing youth support workers, the report also recommended schools engage themselves further with the Toronto Police Empowered Student Partnerships (ESP) program. The program, which has been around since 1997, encourages students to plan, organize and execute safety initiatives at their school and in their community throughout the year.
Falconer said programs like that will help Toronto police better achieve their vision of successful student partnerships.
"There are schools where uniformed officers can assist in bridging the gap but you've got schools with students that see the uniform and gun as signs of oppression, not security," he told ctvtoronto.ca. "It's not a one-size fits all solution."
Nonetheless, the SRO solution has been an affordable one for the TDSB, which has been plagued by massive budget shortfalls for years. The SRO program is funded through the Toronto police budget, which is determined by the City of Toronto.
Falconer balked at the notion that the SRO is a cheap solution compared to hiring a slew of outreach workers. He said school safety is not a matter of affordability but of necessity.
"This isn't about what you get for free, it would be a very scary analysis to say police officers are the best bargain you can get," he said. "If these kids need help, it's obvious then to put sufficient resources in the system."
For now, the program is here to stay, said Pugash, adding that Toronto police and the TDSB are always open to hearing from the community about their concerns and suggestions.
Police and TDSB officials were at a student-led protest at Northern Secondary School earlier this week that focused on some of the concerns around the SRO program.
The protest was held after a student at the school got into an altercation with the school resource officer on school property. The incident was videotaped and put on YouTube, an online file-sharing site.
That video is what thrust the issue of police in schools into the spotlight once again. Students raised questions about the validity of the SRO program and whether it is making any progress in reaching out to Toronto's disengaged youth.
A community activist group called NO COPS (Neighbourhood Organized Coalition Opposed to Police in Schools) is trying to round up students across the city to protest the SRO program once again on November 5.