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Amid nationwide movement to reform policing, some call on Boston to remove officers from schools

An organizer handed out posters in Nubian Square.
An organizer handed out posters in Nubian Square.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Amid a nationwide movement to reform police policies, local officials and community activists are calling for Boston to remove police officers from schools, saying their presence is part of the “cradle to prison pipeline” that entangles at-risk students in the criminal justice system.

The officers do not carry guns or mace and are part of the school system rather than the Police Department, but they are deputized to make arrests and some carry handcuffs. They’re often stationed at metal detectors. Supporters say they help keep children safe and defuse situations before they become criminal matters.

But key voices in the city say the very presence of any police officers in schools undermines the educational mission.

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“They can marginalize, criminalize our Black and brown young people, and set them up on a path not for success but total failure, and in many cases death,” said City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who started her law career advocating for children in the education system. “We need counselors, not police officers.”

In a joint statement, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, the schools superintendent, and the police commissioner said student safety and well-being is their priority, and they recognize the need to carry out that mission “while also ensuring our school buildings are welcome learning environments for all students.”

They said they will continue engaging in discussions about the issue to ensure that all members of the Boston Public Schools community “feel safe, respected and valued.”

Supporters of school police officers point to real-life incidents that underscore their importance, such as in 2018, when a school officer initiated the arrest of a 20-year-old East Boston High School student for carrying a gun near school grounds. At the time, the school department said it would increase the police presence at the school and add metal detectors.

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A year earlier, in 2017, a 15-year-old was arrested after firing a gun at another child who had gone with his mother to school headquarters in Roxbury, to register for school. At the time, the department did not have school police assigned to its headquarters; it does now.

But the outrage over police abuses and systemic racism that has spurred nationwide protests has also amplified concerns from reform advocates that the standard law enforcement approach to problems at schools has been to punish youngsters who need support. That, in turn, permanently entangles at-risk students in the criminal justice system, cementing a broken relationship with police departments.

In Minneapolis, school officials earlier this month severed their decades-long relationship with the police department, in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Portland public schools, the largest school district in Oregon, announced it will no longer have city police patrol the halls of its nine high schools. In Oakland, Calif., the public schools is inching closer to police-free schools.

And in Worcester, Clark University called for a review of its relationship with local police after publicly criticizing police handling of protests on campus; the university had initially said it would sever all ties with the department, including community policing programs and the hiring of officers for large scale events, but pulled back from that decision pending the review.

In Boston, city councilors have called for a review of the deployment of school officers. They want to see if restorative justice practices instead of traditional punishments and policing would better serve students.

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That could mean a conversation instead of detention, new educational programming instead of suspension, and children getting supportive services instead of entering the cycle of crime and incarceration.

Schools should be providing more support and counseling, several councilors said: They cited a 2019 American Civil Liberties Union report that found that there are 1.7 million students in schools across the country with police, but with no counselors; there are six million students in schools that have police but no school psychologist; 10 million students in schools with police but no social worker.

“Our kids are carrying trauma in their backpack, and yet what we do is provide punitive measures to deal with that,” said Councilor Julia Mejia, who called for the council hearing.

Unlike most school districts, Boston’s has its own police force, a 73-member unit that keeps watch over 55 school buildings in a system of more than 50,000 students, district officials said. Those officers made 114 arrests in the 2018-2019 school year. (The district also uses metal detectors at 18 of its 125 schools, though officials would not identify where, citing safety and investigatory reasons.)

Separately, the Police Department has its own unit of school police officers, which includes 13 members who are only called in when needed to lead criminal investigations.

Larry Ellison, a city detective assigned to the Police Department’s School Police Unit, cautioned against any rush to dismiss school officers, saying they play a vital role in resolving conflicts. Their very purpose, he said, is to intervene and assist students with diversion tactics to direct them away from the criminal justice system.

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They are on the front lines, he said, of preventing outside problems from entering schools and he said he has seen them remove weapons students carry into buildings.

“If you got rid of the school police, [you’re] always going to dial 911 when there’s a problem at the school,’’ said Ellison, a former president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers. “Would you rather have someone respond who has a working relationship with that school? Or someone with very limited resources and time to deal with that particular situation?”

Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which has thousands of members, said he recognized growing pushback against police policies. But he also cautioned against moving too quickly to remove officers from schools, saying they serve a vital good. If schools have problems with police, they should seek out best practices and better training, he said.

“I’m watching the news like everyone else, and I see what’s going on,’’ Canady said, “but that seems to be . . . an extreme overcorrection and overreach to take away resources that are there to protect the schools.”

Still, advocates are pushing for greater change, arguing that the school policing model has not been working for all students.

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Sarah Iddrissu, executive director of the Boston-based Educators for Excellence, a teacher-led organization that advocates for school reforms, said her organization — long concerned about the school-to-prison pipeline and the message school police send to students — is asserting that more resources should be devoted to things like school counseling, trauma support, and a more positive school environment.

In an informal survey, teachers described schools as feeling "like prison,’’ noting the presence of police officers, metal detectors, and a lack of cultural awareness.

“The resources that we spend on policing in the schools can be better used for services that students desperately need,” Iddrissu said. “The police don’t need to be in schools day in and day out for there to be public safety.”



Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.