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Building a bridge between police, students

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  • March 12, 2010
{mosimage}TORONTO - He’s taught students about the dangers of bullying and domestic violence, played side-by-side with the boys’ soccer team, even baked muffins for a school awareness campaign.

He is Constable John-Paul DiCecca of the Toronto Police Service, one of 30 School Resource Officer’s assigned to Catholic and public high schools across the city.

What’s happening at Michael Power/St. Joseph highlights what some studies are indicating about the School Resource Officer program.

Since it began in 2008, it’s been successful in building a bridge between police and students. 

The program started in the wake of the Ontario government-commissioned 2008 School Community Safety Advisory panel report which, in turn, had been sparked by the death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners, a C.W. Jeffreys High School student, the first student shot and killed in a Toronto school.

The 2008 report on Toronto high schools also found there were 54 reported gun incidents and 30 weapons incidents on public school property in 2006-2007. The report recommended preventive measures “aimed at encouraging youth to make better choices.” Out of this came the School Resource Officer program.  

DiCecca is permanently based at the school. During the day, he monitors the hallways, makes presentations to students about bullying and domestic violence and meets with school administration.

But some students say DiCecca is more than a police officer. Grade 12 student Alexandra Da Silva calls him a “bridge builder.” Students drop by his office at the school and chat about everyday problems related to school and home life.

Da Silva said a school safety survey indicates the program has helped in erasing the “stigma” sometimes associated with police. Da Silva is a member of Michael Power/St. Joseph’s Empowered Student Partnerships (ESP) program which brings together students, staff and police in organizing safety initiatives at the school.

At this high school in Toronto’s northwest corner, DiCecca says there aren’t any major safety concerns.

This year, there’s only been one major incident involving theft. And there was also only one major case of bullying which was resolved when the parents were informed and sat down together to work it out.

In a school of 2,000 students, DiCecca said it’s not uncommon to find these kinds of incidents. 

At 27, DiCecca says he is able to relate to some of the students’ problems and offer some advice. It’s a role he is comfortable with.

 Da Silva said students have grown more comfortable with having an officer at the school after they’ve gotten to know DiCecca.

“My door is always open,” DiCecca said.  “I’m here for the students if they want to talk to me.”

On his involvement in the ESP group and boys’ soccer, he said they’re volunteer activities he’s more than happy to participate in.

“It shows the students that I’m a ‘normal’ person. I’m not just someone wearing a uniform because most people, when I’m on the street, (they) see a figure of authority,” he said.

The program seems to be making a positive impact at Michael Power/St. Joseph. Grade 12 student Roman Zyla said since the program started two years ago, it has helped erase students’ earlier anxieties about having police in the school and the negative police stereotypes which have been portrayed in the media. DiCecca “goes beyond his duty” and shows how police don’t only enforce the law but are “genuinely interested in being part of the community,” Zyla said.

The program has also encouraged students to be comfortable with the police and in reporting crime, he said.

DiCecca adds it’s a pro-active program of building a positive relationship between the police and the community. He said the program is about “rebuilding trust in the community” and letting students know that they “can approach police without being scared.”

DiCecca added he is motivated to reach out to youth because he also experienced bullying as a student. But now, he’s able to make a difference.

“(Here), I’m able to drive the point home that (bullying) is not acceptable,” DiCecca said.

“I always had the desire to help others and be involved in the community as a positive role model,” he added.

Raised a Catholic, Di Cecca attended Catholic elementary school. He said having a Catholic background helps him relate to the religion classes at the school, school Masses and celebrations of Christmas and Easter.

“It’s part of me,” he said. “It’s part of whom I am.”

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