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Fighting the school-to-prison pipeline in Toronto

Fighting the school-to-prison pipeline in Toronto

Education Not Incarceration is one of the newer groups to take up the struggle against the school-to-prison pipeline in Canada's largest city. Alison Fisher is a teacher in the Toronto District School Board. Melanie Carrington is a social worker and the mother of a son who is currently in elementary school in Toronto. Both are also graduate students, as well as members of ENI. Scott Neigh interviews them about the successful campaign waged by ENI and other groups to end the School Resource Officer (SRO) Program and get armed, uniformed police officers out of Toronto's public schools.

Lots of different grassroots organizing across North America in recent years has brought unprecedented mainstream visibility to what impacted communities have always known: Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately targeted for surveillance, harassment, arrest, and violence by police. What has so far received less mainstream attention is the ways in which white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and settler colonialism shape our school systems as well. Everything from the content of curriculum, to systems for disciplining students, to dominant teaching practices, to the distribution of resources, and much more, result in a system that tends to marginalize Black and Indigneous youth (and other youth of colour) and disproportionately push them out of schools.

There has generally been a lot more attention in the United States than in Canada about the ways that these two systems not only have harmful impacts on the same groups of youth, but in fact sometimes work together in doing so. Communities have called this process by which racialized youth are pushed out of schools and forced into systems of incarceration and punishment the "school-to-prison pipeline."

In Toronto, just as in communities across the continent, organizing in impacted communities around these issues has been happening for a long time. Specific groups and initiatives come and go, of course; ENI is one of the newer groups to take up the struggle against the school-to-prison pipeline in Canada's largest city. The group formed after an initial callout brought a diverse group of community organizers, professionals, students, and other people together in November of 2016. After a careful process of determining their priorities and approach, the group decided that their initial focus would be on the SRO Program.

The SRO Program started in the late 2000s after a rare high-profile instance of violence in a Toronto school, in which a student died. At that moment, the school system in the city had still not recovered from the funding cuts imposed by a Conservative provincial government in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so money to pay for new programs and supports was scarce. As well, there was already (at least among more affluent residents of the city) an air of moral panic about crime, which had resulted in an increase in targeted policing of poor and racialized neighbourhoods. So when the Toronto police offered to place armed, uniformed officers in schools in those same neighbourhoods, and to do so at their own expense and not charge the Toronto District School Board or the Toronto Catholic District School Board, the two school systems jumped at the opportunity.

There was never any consultation with the targeted communities about this measure, however. And since it was enacted, it has been experienced in much the same way as policing is experienced in the rest of society – that is, it has exposed Black and Indigenous students to harassment, surveillance, and criminalization, and it has made many of them feel less safe in their schools.

The campaign against it waged by ENI and by a range of other groups and individuals in the community over the course of 2017 was ultimately successful. Late last year, the Toronto District School Board voted to end the SRO Program in Toronto's public schools. While the program continues to exist in the city's Catholic school system, and both the public and Catholic systems are still a long way from truly embodying the kind of commitment to social justice, anti-racism, and liberation that many organizers dream of, this still constitutes a major victory for communities.

Image: Wikimedia Commons: Toronto District School Board Education Centre

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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