Police presence in schools a real negative

The Toronto District School Board has hopefully learned two embarrassingly valuable lessons.

Lesson number one: think carefully, very carefully, before you act.

Lesson number two: young minds and the emotions of young persons, are extremely sensitive and vulnerable.

It is ironical that the presence of police officers in schools in areas branded as “priority” areas ended up achieving the exact opposite of the desired objective.

The original decision to place officers in the so-called “at-risk” schools 10 years ago was a knee-jerk reaction to what was perceived as an immediate threat of escalating violence in schools in at-risk neighborhoods.

That decision was not properly thought out. The shooting to death of 15-year old Jordan Manners inside his school was seen as an alarm bell, a loud signal that there was an immediate threat that demanded drastic preventive action.

Some aspects of that action were indeed positive: civil and police investigations, enhancement of safety policies and increase in recreational summer programs.

But the placement of police officers in the “priority” schools was counter-productive, even harmful. Too many students felt uncomfortable with the police presence. In addition to the existing distrust of the police, there was also a nagging feeling of being under constant surveillance.

Most of all, there was a disturbing sense of being placed in a category of students, schools and neighborhoods that the whole society, not just the police, had deemed to be dangerous.

That psychological effect of being negatively branded re-enforced many students’ feeling of belonging to and being treated as a type of under-class, a segment of society that was not being equally respected, but rather was to be feared.

Simply put, either the TDSB decides to place police officers in all of its schools or in none. The targeting of certain schools might have been well-intentioned, but it turned out to be misguided.

The other unfortunate consequence of the placement of police in priority area schools is that, for well-known sociological reasons, the targeted areas tend to have significantly large immigrant populations and particularly black populations.

Moreover, there is an evident reason why black immigrants ended up concentrated in the lower income and underprivileged circumstances. The colonial and post-colonial historical immigration policies applied in Canada gave priority to immigrants of ethnically European or “white” immigrants for several centuries.

Those policies ensured that those immigrants who did not belong to that “preferred” category would take a longer time, perhaps a few more generations, to make the significant improvement in their standard of living in Canada that white immigrant communities did.

The broader challenge is that our black community’s experiences with the police are certainly not an isolated issue. Again for historical reasons closely related to discriminatory colonial principles of racial superiority and inferiority, this challenge relates to our place in the wider Canadian society.

As an integral aspect of our pursuit of an equitable place in this our newly-adopted home country, we have embarked on a decades-long journey. We are seeking to establish a pathway, even a bridge, to overcome the arduous and painful obstacles that separate the police from our black community.

The milestones to be achieved in the course of that journey are the gradual changes in attitudes required to establish and entrench a more harmonious and collaborative relationship with the police.

So, how do we, as a black community, find a way to change the negative image that police officers have of black people, especially of young black males?

And, how do we as a black community, find a way to contribute to changing the strong-arm brand image that police officers have of themselves?