Hamilton police will seek ‘other avenues’ to engage youth if Catholic board drops SROs

HWDSB Kids Need Help – which represents a segment of students and community members concerned with the rights of students in Hamilton – hosted a sit-in at Main & Bay Streets on June 22 as trustees voted against police officers in schools. Lisa Polewski / Global News

An officer who used to be the youth coordinator for Hamilton police expects the service will look to “other avenues” to create bonds with younger generations should the school resource officer program (SRO) be eliminated at the city’s Catholic schools.

Community mobilization superintendent Will Mason says youth engagement “pays a lot of positives down the road” for both parties by connecting officers with young people to build relationships.

“We don’t want the first time students encounter police to be when something bad happens,” Mason told Global News. “We try to build those relationships in advance so that they view the police in a positive light, as a part of our community, and then help build some trust and engagement.”

Read more: Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board terminates Hamilton police school liaison program

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On Monday, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) trustees voted to end their partnership with Hamilton police’s school liaison program in favour of searching for an alternative to fill the gap.

The decision came after a five hour-plus board meeting answering calls from a number of advocates in the city to abolish the school resource officer (SRO) program including one trustee suggesting a police presence in schools may make students feel “less than welcome.”

Now eyes are turning to the Hamilton-Wentworth District Catholic School Board (HWDCSB) who have yet to formally engage the possibility of removing the SRO program from some of its 54 schools.

During a board meeting on Tuesday, trustees discussed a number of equity issues including the possibility of hiring a “system equity officer” to oversee anti-racism training and strategies.

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Trustee Phil Homerski, who represents Catholic schools in Ancaster, Flamborough and Dundas, suggested a look at the association between Hamilton police and the HWDCSB’s SRO program in light of the decision by HWDSB to terminate the initiative.

“I would like to see if there is any issue with respect to police officers in our schools related to any racial issues, specifically to bring it back to that so that we’re making the right decisions moving forward.”

Board chair Pat Daly acknowledged the request and said its equity committee will “for sure” include the prospect as part of its review.

Read more: Activists call for defunding of police to address anti-Black racism in Hamilton

Mason says the service was not aware of any “significant” concerns with the SRO program in HWDSB schools until trustees addressed the matter at two June board meetings.

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Hamilton police were hoping the board’s initial decision to launch an evidence-based review of the SRO program  – with an October delivery date – would help the service gain insight into potential adjustments. However, the review was set aside in light of the board’s decision to terminate the relationship.

“We were looking forward to, and more than happy to, participate with the board. And that was going to be the chance to address some of those concerns as they were brought forward,” said Mason.

Read more: TDSB staff report recommends ending program that puts police officers in schools

Kojo Damptey, manager of programs at the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, suspects a similar termination of the SRO program in Catholic schools may be ahead when the HWDSB finally gets around to addressing the subject.

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He believes a failure to communicate “beneficial outcomes” and views from students that its an extension of systemic racism is the reason the program is under such scrutiny.

“If this program was so beneficial, where are the outcomes and where are the metrics?” Damptey told Global News.

“There were over 100 students who gave their testimonials (to the HWDSB). Former students, current students. That is the evidence. What more evidence do trustees and administrators and the police need to see before they accept that this is an issue of systemic racism?” Damptey said.

Read more: What does ‘defund the police’ really mean? Experts say confusion harming progress

Student Ruby Hye who’s a part of HWDSB Kids Need Help – a group which represents a segment of students and community members concerned with the rights of students in Hamilton – told Global News that the biggest complaint from their members was the suggestion that the program was simply for police surveillance.

“Oftentimes, the police officers walked alongside administrative staff and students felt that police officers were the muscle for administrative staff and didn’t actually serve a role in terms of community building or building relationships with students,” said Hye.

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Mason says he couldn’t speak to the accusations that the program was an issue of systemic racism, and says it was his understanding that the concern was over the program itself.

“As far as the systemic racism piece, if there was something in the review that pointed to that, again, we’re more than willing to make those adjustments,” Mason said.

Going forward the service plans to continue acting as a liaison with other agencies providing youth services in the form of training programs and presentations within the community.

READ MORE: Hamilton to consider calls to defund police despite skepticism from board

“So we will still look to create those bonds. And if we can do it in the schools, that’s great. If we cannot do it in the schools, then we’ll look for other avenues wherever we can because we feel it’s an important part of our role and in our service to the community,” said Mason.

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The SRO program supported six officers at 38 different HWDSB secondary schools and five officers in a partnership with 158 city elementary schools before it’s demise.

Liaison officer duties in 2019 included presentations at elementary and secondary schools on subjects including personal safety, social media, human trafficking, internet safety, bullying, vaping and cyber-bullying, according to the school board.

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