HEALTH: After recent violence, city council grapples with putting police back in schools

Schools

“It is clear that the Boston Public Schools require immediate public safety attention and swift actions to ensure a safe learning environment for all our students.”

As some members of city council push to return police to Boston Public Schools, others fear it might cause more harm than good. David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Four of the 13 Boston City Councilors are urging the Superintendent of Boston Public Schools, Mary Skipper, to bring Boston Police back into classrooms.

Councilors Erin Murphy, Michael Flaherty, Frank Baker, and council president Ed Flynn sent a letter to Skipper Monday, describing a recent uptick in safety concerns within Boston Public Schools, or BPS, and encouraged the superintendent to re-establish a police presence in the school system.

“We hope you, [Superintendent Skipper]will agree that we need School Police to be reinstated into our school buildings for the safety of our students, our staff, and all of our Boston Public School families,” the letter said.

The four city councilors also called for a hearing during a city council meeting Wednesday afternoon, hoping to bring BPS, Boston Police, and the city council together to discuss increased safety measures.

Superintendent Skipper could not be reached for comment.

This is the second letter the four councilors have sent in the past month, asking Boston Mayor Michelle Wu to take similar action Jan. 10.

Why are city councilors asking for this now?

The letters to Wu and Skipper paint a bleak picture of classrooms this past year, with 440 reported incidents of bullying and 744 sexual assault cases reported in the 2021-2022 school year. The two letters also bookend a tumultuous two weeks in the BPS system, which included brawls, a fight with a sharp object, and a bullet found outside a school.

“Since police were taken out of our schools in the Summer of 2021, staff reported to an independent consultant that they spend more time addressing safety issues and less time teaching in the classroom,” the letter to Skipper read. “It is clear that the Boston Public Schools require immediate public safety attention and swift actions to ensure a safe learning environment for all our students.”

The letter to Skipper comes a few days after a recommendation from the Council of Great City Schools, or CGCS, that BPS create its own police department, among seven other measures to improve safety.

BPS removed school police officers in summer 2021 after the passing of the Police Reform Law in Dec. 2020. Boston replaced the officers with safety specialists who do not carry handcuffs or have arresting powers. But increased instances of bullying and sexual misconduct within classrooms after the reform have caused a push for their return.

Along with a police presence, the four city council members asked for increased non-invasive safety measures, such as metal detectors. And while there is agreement the rise in classroom violence merits a strong response, elected officials are grappling with what it should look like.

Several organizations have come out against the proposal

After the council members sent their first letter, Massachusetts Advocates for Children and more than a dozen other youth and education-based organizations issued a statement arguing that research supports alternative community-based approaches to school safety over implementing a police presence.

“In this politically-motivated effort to advance school hardening and punitive practices, four White City Councilors organized to advocate for ineffective intervention strategies that will only further criminalize and traumatize Black and Brown Children,” the statement said. “Relying on police and surveillance technology may feel like an immediate solution, but these measures merely create an illusion of safety.

Some councilors are looking for alternative solutions

Some City Council members have echoed this sentiment, looking to alternative, holistic solutions that minimize the use of police.

“Studies have been unequivocal that policing children in schools causes more harm than good,” City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said in a statement to Boston.com. “I support interventions that research has proven to be effective such as strategic supports, counselors, after school programming, equitable literacy, mental health services, and restorative justice programs in our schools.”

Arroyo and City Councilor Kendra Lara, who backed Arroyo’s statement, point to various studies that show police presence in schools causes disproportionate harm to Black and Latinx students.

Often, as a Citizens for Juvenile Justice study of Massachusetts schools points out, increasing interactions between students and police has a negative impact on academic performance — particularly for Black students — and “the placement of police in schools can have a detrimental effect on overall school climate…[which] is especially true for Black and Latinx students, whose sense of safety is not increased by the presence of [school resource officers].”

City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune sent a similar statement to Boston.com, affirming that school safety policies “require meaningful and culturally-appropriate engagement from students, parents, families, and communities,” especially as schools grapple with poor student mental health as a result of the pandemic.

“School safety is not about more police or more metal detectors, but about more trusting adults for our kids, more psychologists, more guidance counselors, more social workers,” she said. “To ensure both the physical and mental safety of our students and our families, we must focus on the hard work – long-term solutions that center healing, justice, and abundance instead of short-sighted answers that may provide a semblance of a solution but instead are half-step reactionary measures.”

City Councilor Julia Mejia spoke to Boston.com about implementing measures that get to the root of safety concerns in schools and mitigate the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We are seeing all of this, and it’s the perfect storm, but it’s also the perfect opportunity for us to really think outside of the box in terms of being innovative and recognizing we can’t keep putting band-aids on bullet wounds,” Mejia said. “I don’t think that having police officers and metal detectors are going to deal with the problems we are dealing with right now.”

Councilor Mejia added that while she disagreed with the other city councilors on this specific policy, “it’s not about me versus my colleagues or me versus the police … but this moment is calling for something new.”

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu spoke about the issue in an interview with WBUR’s Radio Boston earlier this week. While the mayor didn’t answer directly if she would support returning police to BPS, she did allude to compromise and collaboration between the police department and the schools.

“It’s ensuring that we are all on the same page on who does what, and I think we are moving in a really good direction,” Wu said when asked what her takeaways were from the report. “Superintendent of Schools Mary Skipper and Police Commissioner Michael Cox are in regular communication. We have no sense that [only] one department can do certain things…it’s all hand in hand.”

During her mayoral run, Wu campaigned on keeping police out of schools, and maintained her position throughout the 2021-2022 school year, despite many concerns about school safety.

With an even greater increase in classroom violence this past school year, it is unclear whether Wu, or Superintendent Skipper, will listen to the requests of the four city councilors.

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