There are several reports today about a student at Northern Secondary being arrested by the police officer stationed at the school after an incident last Friday. Apparently the confrontation began because the officer thought the young man was trespassing. He wasn’t – he is a student at Northern. But the situation escalated, the student became upset and frustrated, and the officer decided to handcuff the young man, who has now been charged with assault with intent to resist arrest. The incident has received a lot of attention because of a youtube video showing the student, the officer, and several students looking on and filming the confrontation with cellphones.
While it is difficult to know all the circumstances of the situation, two things are very clear. First, the officer’s stated reason for talking to the student was a suspicion of trespassing. Second, the boy is a student at the school. The officer, in his capacity as part of the Student Resource Officer Program, wouldn’t have the same opportunities to interact with students as teachers do. So it’s not surprising he didn’t recognize the young man as a Northern student. What is surprising is how handled a situation best left to a teacher or administrator, and that he didn’t simply alert one of them for the quick task of identifying a student.
I expect the charge of assault with intent to resist arrest means the assault occurred while the student was being arrested, not before. No other charges have been announced. What exactly was he being arrested for? It is clear from the video and from eyewitnesses that the young man is wearing his school lanyard, the albatross of student identification common to most Toronto schools. It’s also clear that fellow students know who he is (many of them can be heard in the video shouting “let him go,” and “he didn’t do anything wrong.”) So presumably, he was being arrested for giving attitude to a police officer before the alleged assault took place. The young man asks several times while being handcuffed, “don’t you have to let me know what I’ve done?” He clearly did not understand why he was being taken into police custody, and at no time in the video does the officer explain it.
But it should never have come to handcuffs and cellphone videos. If the student was breaking a school rule (and there’s nothing to suggest so far that he was) then it’s up to his teachers and administration to deal with him. You don’t need a badge and a gun to enforce Toronto District School Board and school policies. The assumption that an armed police officer is the best person to handle the day-to-day disciplinary actions within a school has no merit. On the contrary, it only contributes to the cynical relationship between many young people and the police, the very relationship the Student Resource Officer program was intended to improve.
One basic role of teachers and administrators is to know all their students by name and face. That’s why this officer is the wrong one to be patrolling the halls in the first place. When I was a student, our vice-principals took care of issues like these. We wore uniforms, but on non-uniform days is was common for friends from neighbouring schools to try and blend in. When the VPs or other teachers noticed students from other schools, they took them to the office and called their parents. There was no need to involve the police.
Since the murder of Jordan Manners at C.W. Jeffery’s Collegiate Institute in 2007 and the ensuing Falconer report on school safety, we have been operating under a different set of assumptions in Toronto. Primary among these is the assumption that students are dangerous, and that we need officers in our schools to confront dangerous students head on. Many will therefore assume that the young man was dangerous, and needed to be threatened and restrained for his non-compliance. Sadly, confrontations like this one go against the very purpose of the SRO program.
When the idea of police in schools was being debated, police chief Bill Blair was quoted as saying, “I do not intend to have my police officers be hall monitors. For us it’s not only about keeping the schools safe but about building relationships with all those young people.” He also said at that time he expected his officers’ roles to be “casual and low-key.” The chief knew that officers cannot replace school staff, and that students who fear or mistrust the police wouldn’t benefit from power struggles about absences and skipping class.
It is also very unfortunate that the young man in this case is black. Whether it is stated openly or not, young black men are a specific target when it comes to any program meant to improve relationships between police and civilians. I used to oversee a youth pickup basketball league at a downtown community centre. The police were always eager for an opportunity to come shoot around with the mostly black young men who played four times a week. It was the only time I ever got to see officers and young men interacting in the absence of guns, handcuffs, uniforms and badges. It built relationships and trust. No one should be surprised if the incident at Northern Secondary has shaken students’ trust in the police.
I have never been comfortable with the idea of armed officers in Toronto schools, but they are there now and they have an important role to play. I think students need more than respect for authority to be happy, healthy and safe. There’s a long list of people I’d like to see more of in our schools – educational assistants, guidance counsellors, public health nurses, social workers. This incident makes me wonder if I should add hall monitors to my list. Heck, someone has to issue late slips and check washroom passes – they just don’t need to be packing heat.