“Astronaut! Astronaut!” Constable Randy Arsenault could not be faulted for thinking that he’s in rare air every time elementary student Helen Haile attempts to pronounce his name.
She’s among 85 students who the 43 Division Community Engagement Officer and volunteer parents in the Mornelle Court community in Scarborough walk to class daily at nearby Military Trail Public School.
In an eight-month span, between November 2007 and July 2008, there were three murders in the neighbourhood.
Following the last one on July 17, 2008, when 17-year-old Shazad Khawaja was fatally shot outside his Mornelle Court apartment building while fetching a litre of milk for his mother, residents decided it was time to take matters in their own hands to make the neighbourhood safe for their families.
In addition to the fatal shootings, they were concerned about escalating drug use in the walkway leading from the complex of seven buildings to the school.
Angela Brackett, who has lived in the community for the last decade, helped spearhead the launch of the Mornelle Court Residents Action Coalition and a safewalk program with the assistance of the city’s Crisis Response, Toronto District School Board and local councillor Paul Ainslie.
“We started with about 20 kids and now we have about 85,” she said. “Every morning, rain or shine, we are out there walking the kids to school. We go back for them in the afternoons to ensure their safe return home.”
Arsenault started walking with the kids about three years ago.
“This is a community program the police support,” he said. “Since we have joined them, a lot of the illegal activity in the area has ceased. It’s either me, someone from our community response unit, or another officer, who will show up. It’s a great way to enhance the relationship between the community and the police.”
At least four times during the school week, Arsenault shows up at the complex around 8 a.m.
“We really appreciate what he’s doing,” said Brackett. “When he doesn’t come, the kids get very concerned and want to know why he’s not there to take them to school. That’s how much his presence means to them. Sometimes, when it rains, I ask him to not join us because I know he will get wet and would be unable to change his clothes right away. I tell him we can go home and change, but he can’t. The guy doesn’t listen to us. His level of commitment to the kids and what we are doing is unbelievable.”
Eyassu Boru says he feels much safer when adults accompany him and his siblings to school.
“I feel even safer when the police officer comes with us,” said the 11-year-old, alongside sisters Helen, and Sara Haile. “The officer is my friend.”
Blossom Wynter, a community resident, said she couldn’t sit idly by and see her neighbourhood become unsafe.
“It gives the parents peace of mind to know their kids are with us,” she said. “It is also a great asset having the police with us. We greatly appreciate it and hope they will continue to be with us.”