Organizing against education’s jailers
Starting in the 1970s and implemented swiftly and quietly over the following decades, school resource officer (SRO) programs found police stationed in an increasing number of schools across what we dominantly know today as Canada. Initiated by police, with the open acceptance of school administrations, and without community consultation, these programs represented an escalation of the policing of students in their schooling environments.
Then in 2017, the trend began to reverse course. The Toronto District School Board’s SRO program was cancelled following massive pressure from Black and racialized communities. Their campaign was supported by an equity and community-based review of the program, which was rife with negative testimonies. It kicked off a movement for removals – which was further fuelled by the uprising that followed the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Cancellation after cancellation has followed, based on similar community pressure.
Through discussions with fellow police-free schools (PFS) organizers in the cities known as Hamilton, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Vancouver, I trace some of the PFS work of the past few years, the broader politics of those efforts, the power of students as well as the strain put upon them in their fight, and the deep hypocrisies of public education systems.
“A lot of minds were changed,” she says, by hearing Black youth speak. “How do you argue with kids’ lived experience?”
As I write from lands covered by Treaty 1, the homeland of the Métis Nation, two out of six school divisions in so-called Winnipeg have eliminated their SRO programs. These removals are among the 18 and counting cancellations and suspensions of school policing programs in so-called Canada since 2017. Each one has been hard fought and hard won on the part of students, parents and caregivers, educators, and community members; resisted and often poorly executed on the part of school boards and administrations. It is important to remember, too, that cancellations and suspensions are not equivalent and that even cancellations are often circumvented by the renaming and reframing of programs.
Black, Indigenous, and racialized students, parents and caregivers, educators, and community organizers have endured silencing, harassment, and racist denial from white-dominated school divisions. Each and every program cancellation has been a battle, and it should not be so. So why is it still so?
Multitudes of voices have consistently reported the same police harms against students: intimidation; surveillance; physical violence; harassment, including sexual harassment; sexual assault; arrests; homophobia; transphobia; anti-Blackness; anti-Indigeneity; and the pushing out by police of students who are Black, Indigenous, racialized, undocumented and precariously documented, disabled, neuro-divergent, newcomers, queer, and gender diverse, as well as those who have language and other barriers.
Why, then, are school boards still undertaking program reviews instead of cancelling programs outright?
Why are they still claiming, over and over again, that they need more information; that in their own community policing is somehow different, reformable, magically benign?
Why do they seem unable to grasp even the most basic of their own equity principles: that a harm to one is a harm to all?
I am a member of Police Free Schools Winnipeg (PFSW), a group that formed in the late summer of 2020. The group was inspired by the work of Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg (J4BLW), and we count among our ranks members of J4BLW, teachers, parents, students, and other community organizers. That summer, the J4BLW petition to defund the Winnipeg Police Service received over 120,000 signatures, and a police accountability coalition over 100 organizations strong demanded, among other things, the removal of police from schools.
PFSW launched a pressure campaign: gathering testimonies, a social media push, phone and email blasts, media interviews, and delegations and panels to city council and the school boards. In March of 2021, the Winnipeg School Division – the city’s largest school division and the one containing the greatest number of SROs – cut funding to their program completely when announcing their new budget. At the time they were in the midst of conducting an internal survey of the program that was heavily biased in favour of a police presence. Though the board did everything they could to keep the discussions tightly controlled, limiting public access to board discussions on the subject, a large swath of the community had made it known that we found the program harmful and wanted it gone.
“This is something that I don’t believe they’ve ever encountered before, so when they were receiving emails, calls, messages on social media, from what we could see, it was alarming them.”
However, in the aftermath of their decision, the school division refused to admit that public pressure was the reason they’d withdrawn funding. Instead, they exclusively cited budget cuts. To date, even when pressed, they’ve kept silent on why the SRO program landed as the top item on their chopping block, ignoring consistent calls to name the SRO program’s harms, while their survey results also sit unreleased.
In October of 2021, after undertaking an equity-centred, third-party review of their program by an anti-racism researcher, another Winnipeg division, the Louis Riel School Division (LRSD), announced the cancellation of their SRO program. That cut was decidedly hard won. The board gradually limited public communication on the issue: most board conversations related to SROs moved in camera. All parent delegations on the subject were suddenly disallowed, questions related to negative aspects of the program were blocked during the town hall, the public chat during streamed board meetings was removed, and eventually the board chair began to skip the designated public question period during meetings. It was a steady and comprehensive shutdown of communication on the topic between what is commonly considered the city’s most “progressive” school division and its constituents.
The organizers I spoke with in various cities all described a similar strangling of public discussion. Yet, despite these barriers, communities have been successfully pushing through the removal of police programs in division after division.
Hailey Dash, co-founder, with Grace Ayoo, of the abolitionist group Asilu Collective, says that what most effectively led to the removals of police from Ottawa school divisions in the summer of 2021 was trustees feeling the power and persistence of community mobilization. “This is something that I don’t believe they’ve ever encountered before, so when they were receiving emails, calls, messages on social media, from what we could see, it was alarming them.”
“One of the board members came out himself [in support]. He was having the virtual meeting on his phone and he came and was like, ‘I’m standing outside city hall where student organizers have blocked off the road. They’re here protesting the existence of SROs.'"
Layla El-Dakhakhni of Hamilton Students for Justice (formerly HWDSB Kids Need Help) explains that HS4J formed in 2017 after a Black Muslim autistic student was handcuffed and forcibly removed from school by police. The group held town halls following the incident, and worked with other community organizers to push the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board to hire a human rights and equity officer and establish an equity committee, recommendations they eventually took up. When, in 2020, the group escalated their push to get cops out, they used email blasts, phone zaps, and other actions.
“We hosted a sit-in during the board meeting and livestreamed it,” El-Dakhakhni recalls. “One of the board members came out himself [in support]. He was having the virtual meeting on his phone and he came and was like, ‘I’m standing outside city hall where student organizers have blocked off the road. They’re here protesting the existence of SROs.’ I think in that moment it became pretty clear to the trustees the kind of public pressure they were facing.”
When truly taken up, equity has also been at the crux of many removals. Andrea Vásquez Jiménez, former co-director of the Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network (LAEN) alongside Silvia Argentina Arauz, and current principal consultant and director of Policing-Free Schools, credits the work of an equity-centred approach for the Toronto District School Board’s SRO program cancellation. That review’s goal, as outlined in its report, was “to capture and centre the voices of those students, families and communities who have traditionally been excluded, marginalized and discounted.” Vásquez Jiménez says that central to the mobilization was “really pushing them [the TDSB] to not only acknowledge, but [to] see the issue as an equity issue, and the need to actually centre those voices, those lived experiences of those students who have been negatively impacted.”
“You can’t hear that kids are being brutalized by police in schools, Black kids are being harassed, violated, wrongfully carded, all of these things, and then just be like ‘Actually I don’t care. I care about these white kids more.’ You have to put those things in their face, directly,” Mehdi says.
Dash emphasizes that the pressure that Asilu was able to generate went hand in hand with political education of youth and the community more broadly. As interest grew, students began to reach out to Asilu, asking its members to sit on panels at high school social justice groups: “We would host workshops and teach-ins. […] We would just speak very candidly.” Part of the goal, she said, was to instill in students an understanding of the power they possess as students within the school system.
When political education is directed at boards and administrators, however, organizers are met with resistance and amnesia at every turn. HS4J student organizer Ahona Mehdi points out that some school board trustees claimed they’d never heard of the issue before George Floyd’s killing; in reality, getting cops out of schools had already been one of the organization’s long-standing demands: “HS4J has been calling for this for years on end, but the problem was, they chose not to listen to Black students. It’s not that the issue wasn’t there and no one was talking about it, it’s that up until the death of George Floyd no one chose to actually acknowledge and listen to students talking about this problem.” Vásquez Jiménez shares a similar experience: “people will pretend, especially administrators, that this is a brand new issue. It’s not a brand new issue. This has been an issue for decades. At the heart of it is a lack of the political will to make any structural and systemic changes to ensure transformative, healthy, and equitable schools.”
Mehdi does credit the anti-racism uprising of 2020 for bringing the issue to the fore in a way that could not be ignored. HS4J collected around 250 testimonies of negative impacts and prepared an extensive report to put before trustees. (Asilu did similar work, creating their own report.) The results were undeniable: “You can’t hear that kids are being brutalized by police in schools, Black kids are being harassed, violated, wrongfully carded, all of these things, and then just be like ‘Actually I don’t care. I care about these white kids more.’ You have to put those things in their face, directly,” Mehdi says. Their successes were, in her view, due to a convergence: “three ways we were lucky: the historic moment, the fact that I was there [serving as student trustee at the time], and the fact that Black organizers have already been doing this work for years on end.”
Cops Out of Schools (COS) organizers in so-called British Columbia point out that because the Vancouver School Board’s (VSB) school liaison officer program, started in the 1970s, was one of the longest running, organizers faced two big challenges at the outset: on the one hand, they had to contend with how deeply entrenched the program was and, on the other, people’s complete ignorance of its existence. Layers of awareness raising and political education had to be undertaken. I spoke with two COS organizers, both of whom asked to remain anonymous. COS organizer RJ points out that the presence of police “creates a climate of toxicity in our schools, which everybody is either complicit in and responsible for, or impacted by – that is a negative repercussion across the system.”
“HS4J has been calling for this for years on end, but the problem was, they chose not to listen to Black students. It’s not that the issue wasn’t there and no one was talking about it, it’s that up until the death of George Floyd no one chose to actually acknowledge and listen to students talking about this problem.”
It’s a point that can get lost in discussions – the fact that, whether or not each and every party is aware, the negative impacts of police infect the entire schooling environment. COS organizer PA says that their coalition of teachers, parents, community organizers, and students used “every network to never stop having that conversation.” PA discusses their approach as centring students and trust: “I think that authentically involving the youth was big, and that is the strength of Cops Out of Schools because a lot of us are teachers or work with youth in other capacities. When you bring youth in and say ‘your voice matters,’ it better matter.”
As they began gathering testimonies, including accounts that went back for 25 years, attention grew. “That started shifting the public narrative in a really profound way” she says, “because all of a sudden you had people 25 years later talking about their experiences in schools, saying ‘yeah I didn’t feel safe; I still feel unsafe. I don’t want my kids to talk to the police’ – all this stuff.” Getting stories on the record, publicly documenting harms, and therefore making these facts undeniable to boards was a major focal point.
All organizers repeatedly raise the importance of real trust and real relationships. “There’s a lot of trust that needs to be had when you’re doing this work together,” says Mehdi of the close-knit HS4J group. Similarly, when COS teacher organizers worked closely with youth who wanted to voice their experience, it was with the understanding that they would never push students into unprotected spaces. When students were eventually ready to speak to the media, PA says, they had that very strong scaffolding of confidence that they carried with them before the camera.
“A lot of minds were changed,” she says, by hearing Black youth speak. “How do you argue with kids’ lived experience?”
On whose backs?
PA points out that having the students and former students who were harmed speak in front of a board was a lot to ask of them, “especially of someone who is historically marginalized by police.” This fact is one that white-dominated boards and administrations tend to ignore or dismiss in the SRO discussion: just exactly how much work is being asked, and on whose backs is it landing?
Students who are open about their opposition to police presence face retaliation from administrators and sometimes teachers. HS4J student organizer El-Dakhakhni explains, “I haven’t actually identified myself or put my name on anything related to HS4J even though I’ve been involved since I was in Grade 9, and that’s because – and we’re seeing this a lot with some of the younger folks who are onboarding right now – when you’re in the news and when you’re in the public, teachers will see that and depending on how they feel about that it can come down on how you are treated in class every day. A lot of people will say, ‘They control my grades, so I don’t want to be on any teacher’s bad side.’”
The student founders of HS4J, El-Dakhakhni says, faced “vitriol from the administration.” Even with a few supportive teachers, she explains, “It’s still not a safe situation to be in as a general rule, because at the end of the day there is a power imbalance.”
“And so there’s a lot of skepticism and they try to create a narrative that we students, literal racialized children, are being controlled by these radical leftist puppet masters or something,” she says. “We’re actually just students who care about other students.”
Mehdi, who also served as one of two student trustees on the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, says that the public nature of her activism took a very serious toll. Administrators and some teachers questioned her organizing, “so it impacted marks. It impacted how I felt safe or unsafe in school, and that’s something that applies to all students when you’re associated with this work.” When she wrote the initial motion to terminate the police liaison officer program, the HWDSB trustee officer attempted to claim that she was in fact not the author of the motion, that instead the motion had been written by the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, a sister and mentor organization to HS4J. “And so there’s a lot of skepticism and they try to create a narrative that we students, literal racialized children, are being controlled by these radical leftist puppet masters or something,” she says. “We’re actually just students who care about other students.”
Mehdi reflects on two sets of negative responses she saw from teachers and staff: their initial hostile responses to independent student organizing and their reaction when a student in a leadership role exercises their voice outside of the expectation of being a diversity token. At that point, she says, they attempt to claim that the student’s voice is not their own: “You’re made into this person that’s being controlled and manipulated, and they try to victimize you in that sense as well, so it’s really complex and it’s really draining mentally.” In February of 2021, the report from an independent investigation was released and confirmed Mehdi’s claims that four HWDSB trustees had been overtly and subtly racist – two trustees were sanctioned, and one was asked (and refused) to resign.
Teachers who speak up face different risks. “That those of us within the system couldn’t speak up became very, very challenging, because you’d get disciplined for it or lose your job,” explains PA. “Having to stay quiet was overwhelming.”
Some program reviews have undoubtedly helped lead to the SRO cancellations we’ve seen over the past few years, particularly that of the TDSB, but the strain they put on students is immense. All organizers I speak to deliver the same message: the evidence is already there. We don’t need more studies, more data collection, more reviews. Listen to those who have come forward. Cancellations need to be undertaken outright.
“It’s still not a safe situation to be in as a general rule, because at the end of the day there is a power imbalance.”
Constant demands that students recount their trauma simply add an additional layer of harm. El-Dakhakhni reports that “probably every single person in HS4J has been in unproductive meetings or data collections where we spill our souls and nothing happens. And people will be very generous with their stories, I find – if they think that something’s going to happen.”
That good faith investment of time and emotional energy is often met with meagre returns. The Louis Riel School Division, for example, now refuses to release the equity report of their program review, going against their own public declaration in April of 2021 that they would make it public upon completion. Gathered through trusting and confidential discussion, the report represents research that could contribute greatly to keeping students elsewhere safe – not only from harmful police presence via program cancellations, but also from having to do the traumatic work of retelling their stories.
Deliberately timed in conjunction with the LRSD’s announcement of their SRO program cancellation, the school division also announced an anti-racism and anti-oppression initiative. Upon learning that they wouldn’t release the report, I asked how withholding equity research squares with an anti-racism initiative. The superintendent and assistant superintendent had no clear response, citing “confidentiality” concerns and refusing further elaboration. To be clear, the confidentiality of the students, parents, and teachers who gave their time and energy to the review is already assured by the way it was anonymously conducted. So whose confidentiality is being protected? The only remaining parties are administration and police.
There are slow signs of hope. One example is that of the New Westminster School Board, where the child and youth liaison officer program was cancelled outright in April of 2021, immediately after the VSB decision, without additional demands being placed on students, and by centring Black parents’ voices and the existing evidence of harms in the VSB and elsewhere.
All organizers I speak to deliver the same message: the evidence is already there. We don’t need more studies, more data collection, more reviews. Listen to those who have come forward. Cancellations need to be undertaken outright.
Racism, RJ says, is “rampant” in public education, “but the conversation that the people who have power in the system don’t want to talk about is the fact that cops and racism are synonymous. They have to do that, they have to go there, and they don’t want to. And that institutional barrier is forcing people to have to do what we’ve been doing, which is rally everybody, get them to a board meeting, hold people’s feet to the fire. All of that is extensive labour on the shoulders of Black and brown people, I cannot stress that enough.”
Mehdi and El-Dakhakhni, now high-school graduates, take pride in the fact that HS4J is entirely comprised of current and former students – an outlier among the police-free schools organizations nationally – but they also want it understood that the youth who undertake this organizing shouldn’t have to, that they are putting themselves at risk.
They’re both torn. On the one hand, they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished and continue to accomplish; on the other, El-Dakhakhni says, “none of us are okay.” Mehdi explains: “Doing this work is really hard and you have to have a really big support system to do it. It’s not really your obligation when you’re 16 or 17. […] Sometimes taking up space in a classroom or doing what you can is enough. I don’t want students to feel pressured to do this work if they’re not ready to, because yes, it’s work that needs to be done, but also, we deserve a childhood.”
A cop by any other name
The fact that policing is inherently racist is still not something that school boards and administrations are willing to come to terms with. So even after program cancellations, the fight shifts to keeping police out of schools. Police forces attempt to maintain their presence under various guises, and their manoeuvres are heavily facilitated, often welcomed, by administrations. At the very least, administrators will emphasize a “continued relationship” with cops in order to save face, but they will also rename programs in lieu of real cancellation. The fact that boards and administrations allow this demonstrates their trust in the status quo as well as their belief in the criminalization of racialized students.
Obtaining information about the level of police involvement remaining in schools post-program cancellation is tricky. Over the course of months or years of public pressure and scrutiny, boards have worked to block avenues to public discourse. Once these boards execute police removals, they use the roadblocks they’ve developed to undertake next steps behind closed doors. The Asilu Collective, HS4J, COS, the LAEN, and PFSW members all describe similar patterns: once cancellations have been accomplished, the extent to which police are actually out of schools, the extent to which they are still invited in under various initiatives, and the extent to which legislation and protocols are enlisted to keep that door open, is cloudy. Because there are so many potential throughfares, tracking down that information is extremely difficult, ongoing work.
The fact that boards and administrations allow this demonstrates their trust in the status quo as well as their belief in the criminalization of racialized students.
In their campaign for removal, Asilu focused on the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), which governs around 65 per cent of Ottawa schools. After the elimination of the SRO program, the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) announced SRO program cancellations in the other three Ottawa-based school boards. But Asilu members began to notice Ottawa police returning to schools in other ways: on the heels of the program termination, the Ottawa Police Service began discussing a nebulous “youth strategy.” HS4J are similarly trying to understand what level of police involvement currently exists in Hamilton schools post-cancellation, and they too are presented with an indistinct picture, unable to ascertain what exactly is going on between the Hamilton Police Service and the school division. “There are these ‘Divisional Youth Officers’ in elementary schools,” says El-Dakhakhni, “so we’re not totally sure we actually got cops out of schools.” One Winnipeg School Division high school now has a “simulated youth patrol” that has students out patrolling the neighbourhood alongside police officers. One problem is that such initiatives are often not part of any school division’s program, but rather they are left to the discretion of individual school principals.
RJ points to the deliberate nature of the administrative obfuscations. “None of this is haphazard,” she says. “It is by design. It is designed to function this way, and every person that holds power in this system, you are the structure. The structure is not an inanimate object outside of you – you are it. So what are you siphoning? That is how we challenge a racist structure. That’s how we challenge racism. We don’t say ‘structural racism’ – we have to stop saying that because people are like ‘Oh it’s a building, it’s this.’ You are the structure. You are the barrier.”
Boards and administrations performing equity will insist that that they “appreciate” and “hear,” and will drone the language of “equity, diversity, and inclusion” but show no evidence of an understanding rooted in action. Dash says that upon termination of the SRO program, “OCDSB also voted on hosting what they called a ‘healing spiral.’” The aptly named spiral was originally proposed as a “circle” that would see very negatively impacted students and community members put together with former SRO officers, ostensibly to “strengthen ties” between the groups. One politically astute trustee questioned the logistics: are people, he wanted to know, going to be sitting in the same room with their oppressor? The spiral was dreamt up as an alternative to the circle so students could avoid that direct contact with SROs – but Dash points out that many questions remain about how the potentially harmful project will be operationalized.
"We don’t say ‘structural racism’ – we have to stop saying that because people are like ‘Oh it’s a building, it’s this.’ You are the structure. You are the barrier.”
Unacknowledged conflicts of interest are common when members of the educational bureaucracy have close friends or family who are police; the influence of these affiliations powerfully links with pervasive cultural biases that cling to the idea that policing is a public good. One of the most jarring moments of the VSB proceedings was when, on the day that the cancellation was tabled, viewers – me included – watched stunned as a trustee rose to publicly apologize to their deceased police officer father for the fact that they would be voting to cancel the program. Whether or not it even occurred to them to apologize instead to the hundreds of students, very much alive – many of them listening in on the proceedings – who had been harmed by police presence in their youth on the VSB’s watch, speaks to a threshold of blindness and cruelty that sometimes makes the road ahead seem impassable.
“I think a lot of the wanting to continue and maintain a relationship with OPS,” Dash says, “is not only because of the municipal and provincially mandated legislation, but also because of interpersonal relationships with officers and because of personal bias and belief systems that are interfering with folks’ ability to see how harmful this program is to so many students.”
Even trustees who are able to learn, she says, who see the harms, continue to be part of that harmful system: “I think that we have been able to build relationships with some trustees, and in doing so, them seeing our work at a closer level, was really important. […] However, at the end of the day, because they are an elected official, they are working for a government that is built on settler colonialism and genocide that does not work for oppressed peoples in so-called Canada. It just will never do that. They are bound in so many ways that will not grant us liberation, that will not grant youth, in schools, liberation from police violence.”
These public entities will, however, celebrate themselves as progressive when they take minimal steps. “When the wins happen,” El-Dakhakhni says, “they will turn around and act like they were with you the whole time, even when they were actually the main barriers to the work.”
Provincial protocols and punitive culture
The fact remains that even after the cancellation of SRO/SLO programs, police can still be called into schools for numerous reasons, including to restrain, remove, and arrest children.
In most provinces, “Safe and Caring Schools” acts, charters, and other protocols give a wide berth to school principals and administrations when it comes to deciding what constitutes a situation in which they have discretion to call the cops on students. This is just another way, Mehdi says, that administrators are manipulating the situation, claiming, “‘we legally have to do this,’ when they actually don’t.”
The Province of Manitoba’s Safe and Caring Schools Provincial Code of Conduct states that “police should be notified for serious incidents that happen at school, during school-related activities in or outside school, or in other circumstances if the incident has a negative impact on the school environment. School boards should identify the types of incidents that require mandatory and discretionary police notification and ensure that principals are aware of protocols respecting police notification.”
Why are such broad allowances given for administrators to call police based on personal notions of threat or “negative impact”?
“When I went to school there was a plethora of after-school extracurricular activities. That, all of a sudden, was being migrated to cops over the last few decades, and then you see Black and brown children not joining and not participating. And that’s a disservice, and that’s what unequal public education looks like.”
This is not the only site of legal entry. The Safe Schools Regulations for Manitoba’s Education Administration Act, for example, states that a principal “may appoint additional members to the safe school advisory committee,” including “law enforcement.”
In the VSB, B.C.’s Safe and Caring School Communities policy is being actively exploited to replace school liaison officers. PA says that in the summer of 2021, post-program cancellation, a committee of the Vancouver School Board quietly crafted the replacement: “September it’s already implemented. They hired everybody over the summer. There was no input like we had requested [that they seek] from other communities. We didn’t really know. I actually still don’t know what the full role of these ‘Safe and Caring’ liaisons are. They have been going around to schools and saying things like, ‘We’re not the police,’ and it’s funny they’re saying it like that, that they have to say that to people now. But I’m like what do you do? Do you still liaise with the police? And there’s no clarity about what that role is, and who these people are.”
One key revelation for COS organizers and the LAEN was the extent to which, since police will often fund the SRO and other policing program initiatives, they were and are being used to subsidize the underfunded public education system. RJ outlines the problem: “When I went to school there was a plethora of after-school extracurricular activities. That, all of a sudden, was being migrated to cops over the last few decades, and then you see Black and brown children not joining and not participating. And that’s a disservice, and that’s what unequal public education looks like.”
"They have been going around to schools and saying things like, ‘We’re not the police,’ and it’s funny they’re saying it like that, that they have to say that to people now. But I’m like what do you do? Do you still liaise with the police?"
All of this leads to the wider conversation about the scope and drive of the police-free schools movement, which encompasses much more than removal of individual policing programs or direct police presence. Though the movement’s first step is police removal, it also takes on a struggle against broader forms of carcerality and control as well as a struggle for truly healthy educational environments. Vásquez Jiménez says that in order for this scope to be more concretely understood, both by those in policymaking roles and by the broader public, the LAEN takes up the U.S.-based Advancement Project National Office and Alliance for Educational Justice’s collective campaign definition of police-free schools as “dismantling school policing infrastructure, culture, and practice; ending school militarization and surveillance; and building a new liberatory education system.” That “culture and practice” element contains a lot, because it extends to the punitive culture around which education systems are built, whether or not police are patrolling school hallways.
Vásquez Jiménez, who is also a lead organizer and strategist on both national and provincial police-free schools campaigns, says that yes, we’re undeniably pushing for police-free schools, “but we’re also pushing for policing-free schools, meaning all policing infrastructures, and assuring that we’re transforming our educational systems into spaces that are healing and relationship-centred, where students are fully supported and where they can show up in their totality and actually be able to learn making those connections to ensure that all students thrive.”
Co-optation, dissonance, counter-options
One of the major barriers to the required dismantling, to political education and change, lies in the relentless co-optation of equity. When white-dominated administrations readily take up the blather, talking about their relationships with Black communities, with Indigenous communities and Elders, when they launch toothless initiatives and call them “anti-racist” – not only do they fail to act, but they act in direct opposition to what is requested and required by the very groups with whom they claim to have relationships.
White organizers in particular must remember to continuously distrust and to push against a system that has served us exclusively. Since those in power in public education will brazenly co-opt equity, we must demand they follow through with their statements. Invariably, unless actually facing scrutiny, boards and administrations will stop at appeasement and continue to protect cops and to protect themselves instead of creating healthy environments for youth.
RJ says that calling out those in power in public education, saying directly that they can’t “leverage these discussions on the backs of Black and brown people […] is a really important aspect of the conversation, coupled with a really healthy, really extensive dialogue on colour-blindness.” Education systems, she says “are rife in that idea that they can somehow be colour-blind. They don’t want to talk about the fact that Indigenous youth, Black youth are surveilled. And yeah the cops, we need them out of schools, but we also need the policing state of mind out of our schools. We need adults in the buildings not to police the kids, and not to see them through the lens that the cops see the kids. Children are never a problem.”
If you demonstrate that a school can be a healthy entity without police, surveillance, or punitive controls, you are essentially providing a miniature example of what a post-abolition community can look like.
Police and administrations will also co-opt social justice language and strategies. When they realized the impact of the negative testimonies coming in to the VSB, they counter-organized, pitting racialized communities against one another by bringing racialized youth delegations in to speak in support of the SLO program: “That was something that was very painful to watch and experience,” PA says, “and it was much more painful for other communities to see it, this classic divide-and-conquer. […] There was harm meant to be created there, and it was definitely created.”
It’s possible that one of the many reasons why institutions of policing cling desperately to the falsehood that they are necessary in the lives of students is that schools are microcosmic communities. If you demonstrate that a school can be a healthy entity without police, surveillance, or punitive controls, you are essentially providing a miniature example of what a post-abolition community can look like. As PA points out, after the removal of police, “all the things they said [would happen], the world was going to fall apart – it didn’t!” No disasters have befallen the 18 school divisions that have cut their police-in-school programs, but there are students who are able to come to school with one less fear, face one less threat – and that is nothing to dismiss.
White-dominated school boards and administrations are not incapable of grasping simple equity principles, nor are they incapable of seeing that the harms of policing are ubiquitous when faced with the mountains of evidence. These bureaucrats uphold white supremacy by refusing to name it; refusing to identify their own role in colonialism’s present as part of an unbroken generational continuum; and refusing to face and act upon such truths until absolutely forced to do so, thus upholding the system that keeps them in wealth, power, and property.
"We need adults in the buildings not to police the kids, and not to see them through the lens that the cops see the kids. Children are never a problem.”
“I think abolitionist work is about precipitating an existential crisis,” explains RJ. “You can’t have a land acknowledgement in our schools and at the same time use the people that are there to protect your property to say these things are equal. It makes no fundamental sense. It’s a contradiction – and we’re not going to have that conversation if we don’t push.”
“I think,” she continues, “that this conversation allows us to have that wider conversation about sanctuary, because sanctuary is a necessary component of a police-free world. If you look at who is impacted by police, it’s the people who don’t have shelter, don’t have food, don’t have access to citizenship – [the denial] that we know makes people live vulnerable lives. Vulnerability is constructed. It’s not just something that just happens. We’re not having those conversations enough but through this movement, we’re putting it on the table and we’re like, ‘no, we’re not walking away from it.’”
The conversation can be hard for teachers, RJ contends, because they don’t want to talk about class reality: “they are majority, predominantly landowning people and the cops have been there to protect their private property. And when we look at who is impacted by cops in school, it’s people who don’t have access to that reality, who are not property owners.”
“At the end of the day,” says Dash, “we cannot just ask the state to give us protection, because the state is the one who’s harming us. So we have to keep affirming that. True political education, that has been super effective. Asilu has a book club and we talk about abolition with current high school students and recent grads. That is really important to us, and having these students understand that we have to use people power at a grassroots level and we can’t be relying on these systems that are actually the ones that are upholding and providing the violence in the first place, and as a result we’re getting really creative.”
The creativity of these organizers and the communities they live in can be seen at all levels of struggle. Mehdi says of her role as student trustee: “when you have a disrupter from inside and then you have these people doing groundwork for such a long time leading this movement, and they can work together, there’s a way to navigate the system a lot more easily.”
As PA points out, after the removal of police, “all the things they said [would happen], the world was going to fall apart – it didn’t!”
As their labour demonstrates, being able to think more expansively, to identify links between existing harmful relationships that buttress one another, is part of that creative work. RJ readily and passionately draws those links. As someone who has worked in the education system for years and previously facilitated police and student interactions, she sees this work as restitution she will carry on throughout her life. Looking back with dismay on the magnitude of pressure it took to get rid of the program, she reflects not just on what is wrong, but on what’s missing: “Imagine a system that didn’t leverage change on their backs. Why did we want to cause that to kids, when we can end a program so easily, and even more easily – let’s talk about this – establish fruitful, therapeutic, holistic resources on the ground that the kids hunger for? In a time of climate emergency, why isn’t every district enacting a climate emergency plan that allows for food sovereignty, that builds gardens – do you know how much wasted school property there is? Have you ever seen the lawns? It mystifies me!”
She also draws the discussion into the devastating genocidal continuum of residential schools and, by extension, to the requirement for an embrace of Indigenous land practices: “Imagine walking through the door and feeling scared when you see a cop there. But you’re told you have to smile – that’s the racism of the institution. The pressure to pretend that it’s okay. That’s not okay. I hope we’ve learned from residential schools what that kind of pressure is, what it does. All those kids that had to walk into doors and pretend like everything was okay, because if they didn’t they were punished. I’ve asked [boards and administrations] many times, how many of you have relationships with Elders from səl̓ilw̓ət [Tsleil-Waututh] Nation, and have you built relationships where you can take the students medicine picking? What do you think is the antidote to violence and anger? It is not having someone lecture you, someone telling you to get out of school. It’s none of those things – it’s land. And this is what Indigenous communities are shouting at us, and nobody’s listening.”
I told the superintendent of the LRSD that if, after the SRO program cancellation, the school division is still talking about “relationships” with police, they are failing; that when they refuse to see policing and racism as inextricable, they are failing. He responded that if that is the case, the same could be said for the education system in general and everything would need tearing apart. It’s something he declared with exasperation, misinterpreting my assertion as nihilistic, inherently destructive. An education system that is built as part of an unbroken colonial trajectory must indeed be dismantled, but to presume a void in its place is a mistake, and to presume that building and dismantling cannot happen concurrently is another. A hopeless reaction to demands for change needn’t follow, because as those at the forefront of struggle repeatedly demonstrate, caring for and supporting one another is possible, and building healthy alternatives is well within our capacities.
"What do you think is the antidote to violence and anger? It is not having someone lecture you, someone telling you to get out of school. It’s none of those things – it’s land. And this is what Indigenous communities are shouting at us, and nobody’s listening.”
Toronto saw concrete progress, Vásquez Jiménez asserts, post-SRO removal, with plummeting rates of expulsions and suspensions among other positive effects. She feels that although there’s much more work to be done, there’s been a “greater shift of mindset” that’s been reflected in some policy change thanks to the tireless advocacy of communities. “There was hiring of community members into positions where they were provided the space to further support community connections within the schools. There was closing of loopholes that addressed the inequities in suspensions and the expulsion process, as well as accountability measures for educators that would tend to use discretionary measures to attempt to suspend students.” She says there were also “changes to structures, processes and systems to ensure further year-long board-wide, deeper unlearning and relearning,” and annual human rights office reports. Curriculum changes are another important development, with the introduction of anti-Black racism courses.
Students in the movement are clear-voiced, emphasize concrete collaboration and support among their peers and in their broader living communities, and are unequivocal about how and where to synthesize real change. Mehdi states it clearly: “No trustee put forward the motion, even though they’re taking credit for it now. It was community members, it was Black students from 4J who actually put forward the motion. It’s just so revolutionary, so sick. And an entire committee who was primarily comprised of Black leaders in the community was unanimously like, yes, we agree.”
For many additional resources on organizing for police-free schools, see the websites of the organizations discussed in this article, as well as Robyn Maynard’s abolition roadmap.
Update, January 5, 2022: Andrea Vásquez Jiménez's title has been updated. She is no longer the co-director of LAEN, and is now the principal consultant and director of Policing-Free Schools.
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