Criminal Law

Police in schools not the answer to gang activity: Fennel

By Jennifer Brown, Senior Editor

Putting police in schools isn’t the solution to preventing kids from joining gangs, says Toronto criminal lawyer John Fennel.

A recent Canadian Press story reported that RCMP officers are working in elementary schools in Surrey, B.C., speaking to students as young as 10 to target at-risk children under the age of 12. Data from the RCMP shows the average age of gang members in Surrey who were involved in gang conflicts from 2014 to 2016 was 23, while the average age of a first criminal offence was 16 and first school suspension was at 13.

But Fennel, an associate with Hicks Adams LLP, tells that examples in other jurisdictions prove that having a police presence in schools can be problematic. In 2017, the Toronto District School Board — Canada’s largest — voted to scrap the school resource officer program, ending the practice of placing uniformed police at Toronto public high schools. The decision came after students, parents and the community indicated the presence of armed police officers on school grounds had an adverse effect on vulnerable youth.

“My first reaction is we don’t need more police in schools — it’s caused problems in the past,” says Fennel. “Police are also expensive — they are paid six figures. It seems to me that money would be better spent on job programs for young people.”

While most gang members in large urban U.S. cities are born into poor neighbourhoods, officials in B.C. argue that a large portion of gang violence in that province involves young men from middle-class and affluent backgrounds.

“I don’t think having a police officer in a school talking about how you’re going to get a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for shooting an unregistered handgun is going to reach these kids,” says Fennel.

When asked, many young people cite feelings of isolation and hopelessness as reasons they are drawn to gangs. One individual in the CP article saw it as a career opportunity.

“These kids might be industrious and working very hard, but at various turns are not getting the breaks they should be getting. That feeling of hopelessness accumulates,” says Fennel.

Suggesting that kids are being attracted to gang activity sooner is not a recent development, he says.

“We see this pop up every 10 or 15 years or so that kids are getting attracted to gangs at a younger age, but it’s a perennial problem that teenagers engage in mischief, and the majority of it doesn’t deserve to be criminalized,” Fennel says. He points to William Shakespeare’s play A Winter’s Tale where a character says, “I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.”

What is not addressed in numerous publicly funded programs for at-risk youth is that many of these individuals are racialized and find themselves in the system more frequently, Fennel says.

“I know that with the clients I see, racialized youth are over-represented, and if you believe as I do that kids generally experiment with mischief evenly across races, then it’s a problem,” he says. “There are kids doing mischief who are white and not white, and the ones who are not white are treated differently — that’s the problem.”

To suggest that young people are modelling gang behaviour is also not always an accurate assessment, Fennel says.

“When they talk about tweens mimicking gang lifestyle activity, they’re often doing what stars are doing in other domains. Entertainers and sports stars have certain signs they use, and we don’t think they are in gangs — we shouldn’t think these kids are in gangs either. It really seems to me to be a projection on something that is an innocent activity,” Fennel says.

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