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Simcoe County boards end police-led school programs

Catholic board confirms decision was influenced by 'community advocacy,' while public board says cancellation came after regular review showing 'duplication' with health curriculum

In the fall of 2022, Collingwood OPP Const. Trevor McKean says he showed up at a Collingwood elementary school ready to present the OPP KIDS program to a Grade 6 class, only to be told by the school's principal that wouldn't be able to deliver it as the school board had the programs on hold.

Since then, the former police-led programming in the region's schools has been cancelled altogether.

Both the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) and Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB) have cancelled police-led classes in their schools, which ends a long-standing arrangement between various police partners across Simcoe County and the two boards. Public board trustees were informed of the change during an April 12 committee meeting, while Catholic board trustees were told during their April 17 meeting.

However, local OPP representatives question whether the change will lead to students not being prepared for potential dangers they may face down the road.

McKean said he ran the new OPP KIDS (Knowledge, Issues, Decisions and Supports) program – a replacement for the Drug Awareness and Resistance Education (DARE) program – virtually for Grade 6 students starting in November 2021 for the 2021-22 school year at 18 different elementary schools in the Collingwood and Blue Mountain area across five different school boards.

2021-10-07 McKean JO-001
Collingwood/Blue Mountain OPP Const. Trevor McKean. Contributed image

“I know the school boards had asked for a meeting and copies of our programming. I hadn’t had a chance yet to send it to them before they made a decision about stopping all programming,” he said.

McKean says he is also no longer allowed to go into Simcoe County public or Catholic schools to wander the halls and talk to kids to build proactive and positive relationships with students, as had previously been the practice.

As of this point, he says police are only permitted in Simcoe County schools if there is a call for service.

He is still running the OPP KIDS program at schools within the Bluewater District School Board in Thornbury, and at Pretty River Academy and Elementary School Catholic Notre-Dame-De-La-Huronie.

“The program is one piece of it. I think it’s sad. I’m disappointed we aren’t allowed to go in and say hello to kids on their lunch break or during recess. The only time kids are going to see us is if something has gone bad,” he said. “If there’s a negative impression of the police, that is being enforced by not permitting the officers in schools.”

“Ideally, we would love to still be there,” he added.

When asked about McKean's experience, Pauline Stevenson, manager of communications with the Catholic board in Simcoe County, says the programming had been put on hold initially due to the pandemic.

"It is unfortunate how that situation unfolded, but all programming with external partners was on hold at that time — it had been on pause since the onset of the pandemic and remained that way until just recently, when a new approach was established as per the report to the board of trustees last week," she said. 

When the Simcoe County public board was also asked about McKean's experience, they maintained that police-led programs have been paused since the 2021-22 school year.

Lisa Coffey, superintendent of education for the public school board, says varying programs were being run across schools in Simcoe County, and estimates that as of 2021, only about a quarter of public-board elementary schools were running structured police programs.

Examples of such programs included Barrie police’s Inside Out program, South Simcoe police’s Be The Real U (BTRU) program, and the OPP’s KIDS program.

Topics covered in the various programs included lessons on the law, vaping, alcohol, drug use, bullying, stress and mental health.

To read more about the programs when they were running in Simcoe County schools, click here.

In June 2021, two different parent groups provided deputations to the public school board calling on the dissolution of police programs in local schools, citing incidents of Black or Indigenous students feeling unsafe, as well as suggesting social workers, not police, should be the government agency providing mental health and wellness supports.

The school resource officer program was dissolved at the Toronto District School Board in November 2017. Peel Region followed suit in November 2020, as have multiple other school boards across Ontario.

The SCDSB denies the deputations played a role in their decision to cancel the programs.

“We always review the protocol every couple of years,” said Coffey. “It was already one of the things we had wanted to review. One of the things we had noticed in the past couple of years is there was a bit of duplication. When programs were first introduced, some of those (lessons) were not offered as part of the curriculum.

“Much of it is part of the health curriculum now. We wanted to look at that and make a decision that would fit in our communities,” she added.

Coffey says none of the police programs were created in consultation with the public board, and the SCDSB didn’t pay for the programs.

“They were not co-developed,” said Coffey.

However, Stevenson says advocacy did play a role in their board’s decision to pause the programs.

“School boards across the province have been looking into policing programs at schools, and part of the reexamination was the result of community advocacy – it was important for us to take that into account as part of our decision-making process as well,” Stevenson said.

Coffey says there are still existing police partnerships at many Simcoe County schools, including safety patrol training, bike and traffic safety and digital safety presentations, presentations to secondary school law classes and the community safety officer positions at many high schools. These programs are all created in consultation with the school board and community groups.

“They are community partners. They play an important part in providing safety in our schools,” said Coffey. “It’s complicated here in Simcoe County because there are multiple police forces. We are still going to be working with them.”

Police are also contacted to respond to situations in schools, and as needed, for consultation purposes related to criminal activity, or to meet with administrators to address matters in the community that may involve or impact students, which will continue, she said.

Stevenson says the Catholic board is also still reviewing their policies which will determine a path forward for their board.

“Our approach is to really take a look at programming from external partners in terms of filling in gaps that we can’t address or resource internally,” she said. “We are able to cover a lot of subjects through curriculum or by working with in-house experts like guidance, chaplaincy and psychological services. We are looking to our external partners, like police service, to provide expertise in areas that we don’t already cover, for example emergency preparedness or safety patrol training.”

At the public board’s committee meeting on April 12, trustees appeared surprised and confused about the cancellation of the programs, and what programs were still taking place in the schools they serve.

“I do believe that trustees around the table and members of the community are looking for some more comprehensive information about community and school safety,” said Barrie trustee Lynn Strachan. “It's something that I think there has been a lot of conversation about and I'm not sure how we bring information to this table. (I have) a feeling of missing information.”

New Tecumseth trustee Sarah Beitz asked when an update to police protocol at SCDSB would be coming back to the board for approval.

Coffey clarified that police protocols are determined in consultation with the Catholic school board as well as the two French boards, and would be an operational plan that wouldn’t necessarily come before trustees.

Beitz asked if it could be brought back anyway as an information item.

“I think there are still a lot of questions,” said Beitz.

With the two biggest Simcoe County school boards cancelling structured police programs, McKean says he’s has concerns about how certain lessons will be taught moving forward.

Specifically, when it comes to lessons about the law.

“What does a teacher know about how the law is applied? They don’t. To have someone other than someone who is involved in that to deliver that lesson, I think is a disservice to the kids,” said McKean.

McKean also talks about lessons given through an online and social-media awareness section of the OPP KIDS program, where police will talk to kids about the potential dangers of online gaming and predators who will comb game chat rooms. He said he's had positive feedback from teachers after leading the program virtually in the past.

“Kids could be exposed to that. I don’t know what their teachers know about that stuff. Maybe they know. Maybe they don’t,” he said.

During a recent presentation in Wasaga Beach on online exploitation of youth, Collingwood OPP high school resource officer Const. Christine Dineen said she has dealt with five cases of students who have become victims of online sextortion at Collingwood high schools this school year alone, and noted she gets called to Collingwood high schools “everyday.”

“Those lessons are so important,” said McKean. “Kids spend so much time online. It’s important they are given the information so they can be aware.”

“We can’t measure how many kids we have prevented from being victimized,” he added.

While there is still a school resource officer included in the Collingwood OPP detachment staff complement, the officer does not hold office hours inside the school, nor does she walk through the halls. She, like other OPP, can come to the school if there's a call about an incident or issue.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen is an experienced journalist working for Village Media since 2018, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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