By Charlie Senack, Barrhaven Independent
A police presence won’t be coming back to Ottawa Carleton District Schools after a motion on the issue was deferred indefinitely.
In June 2021 the OCDSB voted to end their long-standing student resource officer program with Ottawa Police, after some students and parents claimed the program caused harm to the BIPOC and gender-oppressed communities.
That motion passed with all but one trustee in support, and the board issued a formal apology to anyone who felt harmed.
But now a year later, Barrhaven-Knoxdale-Merivale Trustee Donna Blackburn, the only one who was in favour of keeping the SRO program intact, said the issue needed to be re-addressed. Blackburn’s motion aimed to engage the public board in discussions with Ottawa police, in order to create a better standard of practice for when calls need to be dealt with.
“Despite what people have said tonight about various things, I’ve heard the concerns of the community; I’ve heard them loud and clear,” Blackburn told her trustee colleagues. “I have not, and I am not asking for a return to the school resource officer program… The way things stand right now as a result of the decision this board made, we have basically put our administrators in a position where all they can do is call 911.”
The OCDSB Director of Education, Camille Williams-Taylor, seemed to hint she wasn’t in support of the motion, saying much of what Blackburn is asking for is already being done.
“We don’t require a board motion to have those kinds of conversations because we have been having those conversations,” said Williams-Taylor. “Just as a number of trustees have raised, we do have a whole number of responsibilities pertaining not only to the safety of our students, but the safety and security of our buildings, and emerging issues that might happen during the school day, or after the school day.”
Williams-Taylor said the motion wasn’t relevant, but Blackburn fought back asking her why those comments weren’t raised during their earlier discussions.
“What the principals are telling me is all they can do is call 911,” the Barrhaven Trustee said. “I spoke to an administrator, they were on hold on the police line for three hours because they had a non-emergency situation, a situation that had to be dealt with. It wasn’t a minor situation, it could have ended up in a 911 call, and had there been an SRO it would have been dealt with.”
Williams-Taylor did admit the removal of the SRO program has resulted in “significant” delays, with people such as principals unsure as to who they should call when issues come up. She said conversations do need to be taken, which could include finding a point-person to help field calls.
When the school resource officer program was in effect, their primary job was to speak with students, work with administrators, assess any possible threatening situations, and link families and students to services in the community. They would also respond to any criminal or emergency matters when they arose.
Brett Reynolds, the Associate Director of Education at the OCDSB, also stated the type of service schools have when it comes to police response is different.
“Without the school resource officer you’re not calling an individual with whom you have developed a working relationship, that understands the school context,” said Reynolds. “We were used to a very high level of being able to reach someone that day and engage in a conversation that was more consultative in nature. Now we are phone the police as pretty much any other business or member of the community would.”
Meeting Turns To Frustration
A number of delegates pleaded with the board to not pass this motion, saying police making a comeback in schools would only trigger those who have felt discriminated against from the system.
Delegate Sam Hersh asked trustees to think back to last summer’s vote, and remember what they were told.
“Remember the stories you heard from racialized students who shared their trauma with you,” he said,” remember those experiences and let those again guide your decision today.”
Asilu Collective, a group that was started to end the SRO program in Ottawa, urged people to speak as delegates at the meeting. The organization was represented at Tuesday’s board meeting by Hailey Dash, who took issue to wording in the motion regarding the safety of students and staff by police.
“What trustee Blackburn means is that this is an illusion of safety for students who aren’t being targeted and criminalized by cops in your schools,” she said. “School safety cannot be enhanced by policing. This is a racist lie that cannot be perpetuated. School safety cannot be enhanced by policing. This is a racist lie that cannot be perpetuated.”
“Black folks, Indigenous folks, 2SLGBTQ plus, people with disabilities, continue to be severely impacted by police presence in educational settings,” Dash added.
At one point the meeting got heated when Mae Maeson got interrupted by Blackburn, who was asking the delegate if she called her a racist.
Delegates had to be interrupted by chair Kieth Penny multiple times, who requested they don’t call any trustees out by name, and asked Maeson not to respond to Blackburn’s question. Penny later had to apologize after calling Maeson by their wrong pronouns.
Trustee Christine Boothby tabled a motion to defer Blackburn’s motion indefinitely, which passed easily. Blackburn said going into the meeting, she spoke with some of her trustee colleagues who informed her they would support the motion.
Blackburn, who is running for re-election this fall, said she plans to bring the motion back to the table after this year’s municipal election. She said students safety should be the first priority.