SRO Programs in Ontario’s Public Schools

Unpacking Equity is a collaboration between the Public Policy and Governance Review and the Equity, Diversity and Public Policy Initiative (EDPP) at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. This series aims to explain equity-related policy issues and break down complicated topics involving equity, diversity and inclusion. Policy professionals can gain a better understanding of these complex issues in order to incorporate an equity lens into their practice. To learn more, please get in touch with the EDPP.

By Danielle Foppiano

Measures to keep Ontario schools safe have been an increasingly essential point of discussion on the public policy agenda in recent decades, as evident with the implementation of policies like the Ontario Safe Schools Act (OSSA) in 2000. A major by-product of policies like the OSSA are Student Resource Officer (SRO) programs: These programs entail police officers, typically assigned to one high school on a full-time basis, to conduct daily interactions with the student body with objectives ranging from reducing instances of bullying to preventing crime. Despite overwhelming evidence of the detriments of SRO programs to racialized and marginalized youth, the Peel District School Board (PDSB) remains a strong supporter of its use.

The Rise and Fall of Toronto’s SRO Program

While Peel’s SRO program was implemented over two decades ago, they are not the only district school board that have chosen to introduce SROs into their schools: The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) SRO program was established in 2008 after the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Manners in a Downsview high school. Without community consultation, the Toronto Police assigned officers to 45 schools. This was immediately met with criticism from students, teachers, and community organizations. 

Nine years later, in 2017, the TDSB conducted a program review that included a survey of 15,000 students attending Toronto schools with SRO programs. Half of the students surveyed stated that SROs made them feel safer at school. However, over 2,000 students said they felt intimidated by the SROs, and 1,055 students were uncomfortable attending school, describing that they “see themselves…as the targets of overt systemic discrimination.” The report corroborated the stance of many community organizations and members, as explained by Butterfly Gopaul, a member of Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty: “Jane and Finch took to the streets 10 years ago and asked the community…did we want cops in our schools? And it was overwhelmingly ‘no’.” With historically contentious relations with Toronto Police, marginalized students’ negative experiences with SRO programs were anticipated by many Toronto communities.

The Shortfalls of the Assessment of Peel’s SRO Program

           Peel’s SRO program has survived for over 22 years: With a nine-million-dollar budget, 72 full-time officers are individually assigned to all Peel Region high schools. Like Toronto’s program, community organizations have long insisted on the discontinuation of the program. In 2014, a three-year independent study by Carleton University was launched to investigate the experiences of students, staff, and officers involved in the program. The study relied on interviews with over 30 police officials and surveys of 655 grade nine students. Researchers ultimately concluded that the program allowed for positive officer-student relationship development and recommended the continuation of the program. However, this recommendation ignores existing academic evidence that suggests the opposite.

The negative consequences of SRO programs have been widely evident in prior studies: Students at schools with SROs are five times more likely to be arrested and have increased rates of incarceration in adulthood. Accordingly, many took issue with Carleton University’s study’s conclusions and sought to highlight its weaknesses. A major failure was that only one in four of the study’s participants identified as a visible minority. Report co-author Professor Linda Duxbury stated the study did not aim to look “at marginalized communities and how they respond to the police.” Inadequate attention to the experiences of racialized and marginalized youth, who are most likely to feel targeted by SRO officers, serve to discredit the study’s conclusions. This failure to consider these experiences showcases Peel’s lack of commitment to their 2016 We Rise Togetherreport that aimed to “identify, understand, minimize and eliminate the marginalization experienced by Black males.” Clearly, both the PDSB and the Carleton authors have failed to recognize how historical and ongoing disproportionate targeting of marginalized communities by police forces would cause marginalized youth to feel uncomfortable in the presence of SROs. 

           The study additionally failed to fully comprehend the negative impact of the SRO program despite many students’ positive experiences. The report justified the trade-off of making a smaller proportion of students feel unsafe (some students felt s unsafe they avoided attending school altogether) for making a larger proportion feel safer. Although TDSB’s review of their SRO program found students had similar experiences compared to Carleton’s report, the TDSB understood that they could not continue a program at the expense of some students, even if many found it to be positive. As explained by TDSB Chair Robin Pilkey, they “decided to stop a program that has caused many [students] distress…we’ve listened to many of the students who don’t normally have a voice…even if you’re not the majority, we are still listening to you.”

Moving Forward

           The PDSB continues to ignore extensive academic research that supports the termination of SRO programs and instead chooses to focus on utilizing the Carleton study that clearly fails to adequately acknowledge the experiences of marginalized students. Nigel Barriffe, a TDSB teacher and president of Urban Alliance on Race Relations, argues for the replacement of SRO programs with “more of a health lens approach…[with] school-based, health-care providers that build relationships and understand the issues in the community.” Many community individuals and organizations are pushing for these changes, with discussion of how the program’s budget could be reallocated to more beneficial programs, such as guidance counselors and mental health-related services. Calls to end the SRO program are plentiful and justified, and it is essential that if the PDSB eventually listens, the community should have the ultimate power in determining how the budget is more effectively spent.

Danielle Foppiano is a 2021 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. She is also an Internal Evaluation Policy Consultant for the Munk School’s Public Good Initiative. She previously completed an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Criminology and Environmental Studies at the University of Toronto. Her areas of interest include corrections and criminal justice policy, as well as climate change policy.