It’s been under the microscope for over a year and last month Thames Valley District School Board trustees continued with their collective finger on the pause button while dealing with the future of the School Resource Officer (SRO) program.
In October of last year, the program was paused pending a review “as a result of a board motion reflecting concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter that requested the administration to ‘engage in extensive consultation . . . regarding the School Resource Officer,'” according to a TVDSB release at the end of October.
The release continues, “While the review found value in the program, it also confirmed that some students, including a disproportionate amount of Indigenous, Black and Youths of Colour have felt harmed or traumatized by the presence of police in Thames Valley Schools.”
The SRO program has been in St. Thomas schools for a considerable length of time and Police Chief Chris Herridge stated recently, “We are very proud of our local school programs, the terrific work STPS officers have been doing in St. Thomas schools for decades and the positive relationships which have been developed . . . “
Is this the same program the TVDSB has paused for 13 months?
Whether it is a massive Saunders Secondary School in south London or rural Straffordville Public School, the TVDSB paints all of its schools with the same brush.
Look no further than the closing of smaller rural schools with no regard for the impact on the community in which it is located.
So the review continues, the SRO program remains on pause and there is no timeline whatsoever on how long it will remain so.
A week ago we spoke at great length with St. Thomas Police Service Deputy Chief Marc Roskamp who has been closely involved with the SRO program for some time.
He advised concerns about the SRO program began to be raised last year in the larger school boards like Toronto, Hamilton, Peel and Niagara.
And ultimately those concerns rippled outward to boards across the province.
The TVDSB review was launched and all police services in the board’s watershed were invited to the table.
“What is special about this review,” noted Roskamp, “it was going to include leadership representatives from the two school boards and the police and I know that’s different than other areas in the province.
“It was also going to include leaders representing Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, the BIPOC community.”
And the review was led by a third party, The Centre for Organizational Effectiveness out of London.
“The aim was to provide an opportunity to better understand the SRO program. The (BIPOC)community was telling us they basically don’t want police in the schools.
“It was an opportunity for us to get together to explain what we do.”
From that review came the decision to pause the SRO program.
“I can tell you it is our strong position that SRO programs are a collaboration, it’s community-based initiatives that promote safe environments for educational communities.
“But, I can tell you we have some credibility, some influence and some knowledge to share when it comes to bullying and what crimes can be committed if actions stray a certain way.”
“It gives police officers an opportunity to conduct daily interactions with students and teachers on things such as bullying and intimidation. And, to support crime-prevention initiatives.”
These interactions are supported by subject-matter presentations, stressed Roskamp.
And therein lies the rub.
“That’s a big one that’s being questioned right now. Are the police subject-matter experts to talk to us about drugs or to talk to us about bullying?
“And I would submit we are in certain areas. We are not the professionals in the social and health-related problem area that we’re seeing. But, I can tell you we have some credibility, some influence and some knowledge to share when it comes to bullying and what crimes can be committed if actions stray a certain way.
“And, we can provide crime-prevention initiatives to protect oneself and the school and how kids can better support each other and teachers.
“And, just promoting overall well-being. And that’s the whole basis of this (the SRO program) to engage with our youth.”
“And by and large, I can tell the respondents rate the SRO program as positive to very positive.”
As the pause continues with no fixed determination of what may lie ahead, Roskamp notes police will continue to provide youth engagement and respond to emergency calls for service at schools.
Such has been the case this week as OPP officers deal with violent incidents and lay charges at Medway High School in Arva.
Roskamp reminds us when it comes to youth engagement, some aspects go well beyond the SRO program.
“And we will continue to do that. It’s just there is no invitation for us to go to schools.
“It’s unsettling for us because we feel there is such value in being in the schools to reduce violence, bullying and with the drug talks.”
He talks about a survey distributed in four languages this past May to parents and former and current students.
“And by and large, I can tell the respondents rate the SRO program as positive to very positive. Fifty-six per cent of respondents rate their experience with SRO programs as positive or very positive.
“Yet, we are pausing to try and re-design a program that fits what the community and what the world is telling us.
“If we have to adjust, we are always open to listening and to learn and we are committed to further discussion on how we can better provide services differently to benefit the entire community.
“And, we will do that. But, at the end of the day, we hope that it (the SRO program) returns.”
“So, if there’s an emergency we may need that SRO to be in uniform because if there is another emergency in the community, we have adequacy standards we have to live up to which we never will compromise.”
Seven recommendations are emanating from the review including the need to “continue to address systematic racism and work toward reconciliation; clearly articulate the purpose of the School Resource Officer program; improve professional learning and increase the diversity of School Resource officers; and increase accountability.”
And “continue to use a trauma-informed approach,” which Roskamp explained means how officers approach people who might be traumatized by certain things in their life.
In other words, how do you deal with marginalized students in the community?
“Our presence might be upsetting them,” suggested Roskamp.
He adds the service completely supports the recommendations and “we will do whatever we need to. We’re doing that already. If we want to ramp that up, we will do that completely.”
Significant consideration will be what SRO officers will look like while in school. Will they be in plain clothes or uniforms?
“We have to be honest and recognize here there are differences in sizes of communities. In Toronto, they have five or six thousand officers and in St. Thomas, we have 75 but we have 44 on the street.
“You’ll see us probably at some point back in the schools and we’re open to providing a different look.”
“So, if there’s an emergency we may need that SRO to be in uniform because if there is another emergency in the community, we have adequacy standards we have to live up to which we never will compromise.
“And that officer may have to fly out of that school to help the front line. We are not Toronto where you have hundreds of officers on every day.
“We are not London, and London is not Toronto. We are not all the same here. You can’t paint the whole province with the same brush.”
Did we not say in our intro that the TVDSB is often guilty of doing just that.
“We are aware of our own city’s demographics and we don’t have those ethnic enclaves where, yes there might be some problems, and a focus from police on certain areas and that is unique to Toronto and how they provide public safety services.
“For us, we will be open to listen and learn and try to provide a better service.
“You’ll see us probably at some point back in the schools and we’re open to providing a different look.
“It might not be a sworn constable. It could be a civilian, it could be a special constable, but we’ll make the right decision.
“Chris (Chief Chris Herridge) and I think there is huge value to keeping us in the schools.”
For now, you have to question how long the TVDSB will keep its collective finger on the pause button?
Looking at it through a different lens, how long do we remain in this cooling down period in what has become a highly charged, divisive landscape on so many levels? Including police officers in schools.
Much of it is fueled by what transpires south of the border.
‘Any community needs to have a strong protective element for industries to feel good about moving in there.’ – new St. Thomas Fire Chief Kevin Welsh
FROM SURPLUS LAND TO SUPPORTIVE HOUSING
An interesting piece of housekeeping will take place at Monday’s (Nov. 15) council meeting when members are to be asked to declare the lands at 14-16 Queen Steet as surplus.
That is, of course, the future home of Phase 2 of the city’s social services and housing campus that will contain 45 affordable/supportive housing units and, further down the road, a new fire substation.
The lands will ultimately be transferred to Indwell Community Homes to proceed with the above project.
The building itself will be owned and operated by Indwell which will, in turn, enter into a long-term lease with the city for access to the substation.
Indwell has nearly 50 years of experience as a Christian charity that provides high-quality affordable supportive housing in several Ontario centres, including London, Woodstock, Simcoe and Hamilton.
Indwell will also operate the Railway City Lofts, 15 micro-apartments located on the second floor of the downtown transit building.
The city will be a partner in the provision of the actual Queen Street housing units, requiring an investment of approximately $3.5 million.
This is contingent on Indwell ensuring a certain number of the units are rent-geared-to-income (RGI) for a minimum of 20 years.
Indwell has applied for Rapid Housing Funding from upper-tier government and should that materialize, the city’s investment would be pared back to about $1.5 million.
City manager Wendell Graves notes Monday’s recommendation to council is a technical housekeeping matter now that a survey of the land parcel has been created.
Ceremony on a vacant lot at 16 Queen Street in St. Thomas a case of ‘standing on the ground of compassion’
VOTING MADE EASY
Of course, it’s premature to speculate on which members of council will throw their hats in the ring for next year’s municipal vote.
But one thing is certain, voting for those candidates will be a high-tech experience.
The plan for the 2022 election is to have all votes cast via the internet and telephone.
In the previous municipal election in 2018, St. Thomas electors cast their ballots using the internet and phone during the 10-day advance voting period through Simply Voting Inc., the city’s internet and telephone voting provider.
“Electors did not have to spend time in line-ups attending at a voting place or arranging for transportation to get there.”
Electors cast paper ballots at one of four voting locations on voting day itself.
There was no in-person voting using paper ballots during the advance voting period and no electronic voting on voting day.
In total, 10,218 electors voted as follows: 55.7% by paper ballot, 41.2% by internet ballot and 3.1% by telephone ballot.
Voter turnout was 35.9%.
In her report to council, city clerk Maria Konefal advises, “the average voting session length for internet ballots was 2.7 minutes, while the average length for telephone ballots was 5.5 minutes.
“Electors did not have to spend time in line-ups attending at a voting place or arranging for transportation to get there.”
The total cost was just over $95,000 based on 28,000 electors.
So, Konefal is recommending a paperless vote next year, “which will reduce equipment, maintenance, ballot printing, and staffing costs and the need for electors to commute to a voting place.”
The estimated cost would be just shy of $100,000.
Should council choose to still rely on paper ballots along with internet/phone voting, the tab would be about $116,000.
If approved by council Monday, how long before any conspiracy theories and warnings begin worming their way through social media about the fix being in no matter who runs and who wins?
THE ECHO CHAMBER
Following up on last week’s transit item Isabelle Nethercott, who relies heavily on Railway City Transit, was quick to forward a detailed accounting of how the system is performing at this time.
“While I will say that I think it is appalling that multiple emails to city hall customer service and to various elected officials still have not elicited even so much as a “thanks for the feedback” response, there were references in the council meeting to some of the issues which I had raised in my emails.
“Councillors Kohler, Clarke and Peters mentioned correspondence which all council members had received from a citizen and Councillor Clarke, in particular, asked Mr. Lawrence (city director of engineering, Justin Lawrence) directly about it.
“Mr. Lawrence was only able to recall two things from the many points which I had raised in three separate emails to him, and in particular his acknowledgement that the one-hour service takes “slightly longer for some riders” has stuck with me (and not in a good way).
“Both Mr. Lawrence and Mayor Preston mentioned that there was a “tradeoff” made to increase some things and gain benefit that way.
“Mayor Preston stated that some routes had to go to an hour in order to be able to supply any service at all on Sunday. I note that the projected ridership on Sundays is 2500/year or about 48 rides per week. That seems like a pretty small return when compared to the reduction of 4 out of 5 routes to hourly service.
“Wouldn’t that amount of ridership be able to be serviced by “on-demand”, rather than running all the routes all day? Of course, the evening service is also a part of the “tradeoff” and I do acknowledge that is a definite improvement.
“Mayor Preston has asked that riders continue to provide feedback and I would ask that all citizens do so, not just riders.
“As I understand it, the transit system is subsidized by the city, which means that tax dollars support it whether you use it or not.
“So it would be in everyone’s best interests to have a robust system that is well-used, to increase fare revenue and reduce the amount of subsidization required.
“Mayor Preston mentioned that there is a “reporting place” for transit only, but I cannot seem to locate it. Perhaps a link could be added directly to that reporting place right on the transit system page at the city hall website so that people can easily find it and make their voices heard.”
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