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How UofGH students help Toronto police in gang prevention

Five of the students involved in gang research pose for a photo

In Toronto and other major cities around the world, law enforcement officials are constantly exploring new strategies to break the cycle of gang violence and help prevent vulnerable young people from joining or being victimized by gangs.

With those goals in mind, six students in the University of Guelph-Humber’s Justice Studies program have been collaborating with the Toronto Police Service on a research project looking at identifying and promoting successful youth gang prevention techniques and strategies.

Recently, those students had the opportunity to further that work at the three-day 2018 Toronto Front-Line Gang Prevention Symposium, a major event that was in fact organized in large part by the very same UofGH students who conducted the research project.

The recent event at Toronto’s Woodbine Banquet Hall attracted approximately 500 attendees, including officers from the Toronto Police Service and other Greater Toronto Area police services, as well as representatives from the Ministry of the Attorney General, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, the City of Toronto, and Humber College.

Over three days, attendees discussed and studied research relating to the practical application of evidence-based strategies surrounding gang education, prevention, intervention and suppression.

“It was the first experience I’ve had both going to a conference like that and running a conference like that,” said third-year UofGH student Kevin Siery. “It was so neat seeing all these front-line officers listening and engaging during the conference.

“It was a really great experience.”

The students had this opportunity to become involved with the Toronto Police Service through a connection with UofGH instructor Dr. Glenn Barenthin, who knew a Toronto detective who was looking for research help.

An initiative that began with just two students was eventually recognized as a UofGH course, and six students total – Emma Gomes, Ryan Fenech, Allyson Sander, Alex Corfield, Alanna Coffen and Siery – have now had the chance to become involved, with more set to join in the fall. All six students who previously conducted research elected to continue in a volunteer capacity after completing the course.

For the students, highlights of the symposium included an appearance from Lindsey Houghton, creator of the End Gang Life initiative that originated out of Surrey, B.C., as well as an illuminating presentation on the ties linking gangs to sex trafficking and the exploitation of children. The symposium prompted significant discussion amongst attendees about their own experiences working with youth and gangs, and that engagement was rewarding for the students.

As he watched his students help to run the conference, Dr. Barenthin was proud of their composure and organization.

“They did great. They were right up there at the front, signing in all the officers and agencies who came from around the GTA,” Dr. Barenthin said.

“The officers and attendees afterwards couldn’t say enough about how good our students were.”

From the research to the symposium, the initiative provided an invaluable learning experience for the UofGH students. Beyond the work itself, the students also all received their own identification cards to access Toronto Police Service’s 23 Division. Working there has given them the valuable opportunity to meet and forge lasting connections with front-line officers.

“It’s an amazing networking opportunity,” said Coffen, a third-year student. “There’s also a difference between reading theory and being immersed and surrounded by real police officers.

“Learning what we learned in class and then seeing the behind-the-scenes aspect of those ideas actually being portrayed in police services – it’s been eye-opening to say the least.”