Police officers in uniform remain banned from Ottawa’s English-speaking public schools except for the case of an emergency.
A motion to open communications between the Ottawa Carleton District School Board and the Ottawa Police Service was shot down by the board’s Vice-Chair Justine Bell and did not even make it to vote.
OCDSB Trustee Donna Blackburn introduced the motion at the board’s Committee of the Whole meeting Tues., June 13. Blackburn had said before the meeting that she wanted to reopen communication lines with the police beyond 911 calls, citing concerns about increasing violence in OCDSB schools and the benefits of having a positive relationship with the police.
Blackburn tried to introduce a similar motion last summer. Trustee Christine Boothby moved to defer Blackburn’s motion indefinitely, saying the motion would cause hurt to the community. Trustee Lyra Evans, who is now the board chair and who has been an active anti-police advocate and provincial NDP candidate over the years, commented at the meeting that she was “of the opinion we punt this into space and never look back.”
Evans and other trustees lobbied for the cancellation of the Ottawa Police Service Student Resource Officer (SRO) program. Their reasoning was that having a uniformed police officer with access to the schools caused fear and anxiety to racialized (non-white) students and members of the LGTBQ+ community.
Blackburn updated the motion that was presented to the Committee of the Whole June 13. It read:
“WHEREAS the health and safety of our students and staff is a top priority without which student achievement and well-being cannot be realized; and
“WHEREAS school safety can be enhanced by a partnership with the police service which supports the safety and security of school communities and proactively assists students who may benefit from positive police involvement;
“THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: THAT the Director of Education engage in discussions with the Ottawa Police Service to establish standards of practice that allow for police support to schools respecting the safety and security of students and staff.”
College/Knoxdale-Merivale Trustee Amanda Presley called the motion harmful.
“I fear this motion will cause harm to our community partners and our community at large, as well as the perception and integrity of the board,” Presley said. “The voices who have trusted us to advocate for them should be centered in determining the expectations of the Ottawa Police Service community partner standards service and what they will look like inside of our institutions prior to any actions on the part of the board. I believe it will cause harm based on those things, and I believe that the communities we represent should be offered the opportunity to provide further consultation and consideration prior to moving forward.”
Bell, who was chairing the meeting, declared that Blackburn’s motion was out of order.
“On my determination, I think you have clearly outlined the harm – reputational harm and harm to the community – so that will be my ruling that this is upheld and will not be considered.”
Blackburn spoke next on a point of order, but was almost immediately cut off by Bell. Blackburn challenged Bell’s decision.
“On a point of order, I would respectfully submit that it’s inappropriate to suggest that a trustee has put forward a motion that is going to cause harm,” Blackburn replied. “I’m actually trying to stop harm,” she said before being cut off by Bell a second time.
Students from Pierre Savard engaged in conversations with the Ottawa Police after a visit to a Grade 10 class about policing and racism.
Bell’s decision to call Blackburn’s motion out of order and went to a vote. The trustees voted 8-4 in favour of Bell. The only trustees who supported Blackburn were West Carleton-March/Stittsville-Rideau Jock Trustee Lynn Scott, Osgoode/Riverside South-Findlay Creek Trustee Jennifer Jennekens, and Orleans Trustee Donna Dickson.
Blackburn was clear leading up to the meeting that her motion had nothing to do with revisiting the SRO program. It was about opening communications with the Ottawa Police Service to help build a relationship with the schools, as the police are frequently called to the schools in cases of emergencies, including violence and potential threats.
She believed that the motion was not our of order, as it was carefully reviewed by staff and the Director of Education before it was presented.
“I was very disappointed the Board chose not to discuss a very important topic, one that effects the safety of our staff and students,” Blackburn said. “At the end of the day, police will be in our schools and I thank the Ottawa Police Service for working with us.”
There were four speakers registered to speak at the meeting, all of whom asked that the matter of police in schools not be re-opened. Among the speakers was Mae Mason from the Asilu Collective, a group that worked with Evans and Bell to lobby for the elimination of the Ottawa Police Student Resource Officer program in 2021.
The day before the meeting, uniformed Ottawa Police Service officers were welcomed with open arms at Pierre-Savard High School in Barrhaven. That school is in the city’s French Catholic School Board. The police basketball team played a game against students from Pierre-Savard, drawing a large crowd in the gym. The reaction from the staff and students was overwhelmingly positive on social media. Former Barrhaven Community Police officer Sgt. Maria Keen posted photos on Twitter. She also tweeted about a police visit to a Grade 10 class.
“Today WE were INVTED to speak to a Grade 10 class about policing and racism,” wrote Keen, the first Filipino police officer in Ottawa. “Tough questions. We were honest and transparent. Clearly they didn’t have an issue of us coming to the school. These boys came up to US and engaged in a convo. In the end, they wanted a pic with us!”
The decision came just days after a report released from a survey done by the ODCSB.
The 2023 Educator School Climate Survey by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board concluded that 77 per cent of teachers received reports of bullying at schools during a four-week window in April. It also showed that nearly one third of students (32 per cent) reported sexual harassment, and 35 per cent of students reported discrimination.
The board’s unwillingness to even discuss the matter of opening a dialogue with the police did not sit well with everyone. One parent told the Barrhaven Independent that was he saw at the meeting was an ideological way of thinking.
“They were not even open to engage with people who do not have the same viewpoints as they do,” said Wesner Estime, a parent with children at John McCrae Secondary School and Barrhaven Public School.
“We are bound to our beliefs and values, but we must be open to what others have to say,” he said. “That meeting did not follow those basic principles. We did not get to hear what the other trustees had to say.”
Estime said that the review released by the board was a cause of concern in the community.
“There is a problem,” he said. “Two years ago there was a vote to stop the SRO program, and that is fine. But after two years, there is clearly concern. But the board is not open to see what can be done. It’s unfortunate the board did not try to be responsible. The board is telling us there is a problem, but then they have to come up with a solution.
“No decision ill make everyone happy, but the board has to find a solution. The only way that can happen is if we have to meet each other halfway. The board is not willing to do that.”
Blackburn will continue to push for repairing the board’s fractured relationship with the police.
“I am confident our staff will address the issues that have resulted in the elimination of the School Resource Officer Program,” she said.
The Ottawa Police Service was in full force at Pierre-Savard High School for a special event last month. The local French Catholic board school hosted the OPS basketball team, which is part of the OPS community outreach program. Events like this cannot take place at South Carleton or other OCDSB, as uniformed police officers are banned from schools. (Twitter photos/Sgt. Maria Keen)