Canada's largest school board has voted to end a controversial program that places uniformed police officers in dozens of public schools across Toronto.
Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustees voted 18-3 in favour of cancelling the School Resource Officer (SRO) program during a meeting on Wednesday night. One did not vote.
The decision comes on the heels of a report by staff at the board earlier this month that recommended eliminating the program after finding it caused some students to feel uncomfortable and even intimidated.
While 57 per cent of those surveyed for the report had a generally positive impression of the program, 10 per cent strongly disagreed.
Decision to end program a 'difficult' one
"Over recent months, we have listened to marginalized voices that have not always been heard. We have heard loud and clear that the SRO program is not welcome by a significant number of our students and that's why we've made the difficult decision to end the program at the TDSB," school board chair Robin Pilkey said in a statement Wednesday night.
In August, TDSB trustees voted to temporarily suspend the program while staff and students were surveyed and community consultations took place. Before that, school resource officers were stationed at 45 TDSB high schools.
The SRO program was launched in 2008, one year after Grade 9 student Jordan Manners was shot and killed at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate. He was 15.
Since then, the program has drawn sharp criticism from activist groups such as Black Lives Matter Toronto, which has made vocal demands to scrap it as one measure to address anti-black racism in the education system.
Wednesday's decision was met with roaring applause from various community groups at the meeting.
'This is testament to Jordan'
"This is a big victory for us," said Butterfly Gopal of Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty. "This is testament to Jordan. Jordan's name has been pulled to justify criminalizing our community, militarizing our community for more than 10 years."
Rodney Diverlus, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, had a similar reaction.
"This has been a 10-year battle with a number of organizations that extend way beyond even the beginning of BLM Toronto. The community was not consulted when this program was created," he said. "I think there's a relief … there's a sense of justice, there's a sense that we've been heard."
But the decision is also raising questions about the board's motives after its own report found that a majority of participants had a positive impression of the program.
"How do they reconcile that? That's what I say," Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack said following the decision.
McCormack believes Wednesday night's vote was a "superficial exercise," arguing the data clearly supported continuing the program. He says officers who were stationed in schools are very disappointed in the move, saying they were "very dedicated and very passionate" about breaking down barriers between police and youth.
'I think they'll live to regret that decision'
"It's too bad that they chose to ignore the value of the SRO program, it's a shame. And I think that they'll live to regret that decision at some point," he told CBC Toronto.
While the students opposed to the program may have been in the minority, Pilkey points out they nevertheless amounted to about 2,000 students — the equivalent of about five full schools.
"If some of them felt intimidated or targeted or watched ... I think it's important as a board that we listen to those voices," she told reporters after the vote, rejecting claims that the decision is "anti-police."
The school board says that while it has voted to end the SRO program, it plans to continue working with Toronto police on "shared issues."
"Though the SRO program will be coming to an end in 45 TDSB schools, we will continue to collaborate with Toronto Police," said board director John Malloy. "Moving forward, we will also support our staff and engage our students to continue providing caring and safe schools for all."
Meanwhile, next month the Toronto Police Services Board is also expected to decide whether or not to continue with the program, which continues at Catholic schools in the city. The board is currently reviewing it with an assessment being carried out by Ryerson University.
This past June, protests by Black Lives Matter delayed a debate on the fate of the program, after which the police services board voted to defer its decision until December.