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Hundreds of Boston students who need laptops have not received them, advocates say

Boston Public Schools employee Giscar Centeio returned with a laptop after nobody was home at a student's address in Roxbury in March.
Boston Public Schools employee Giscar Centeio returned with a laptop after nobody was home at a student's address in Roxbury in March.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Hundreds of students who have requested laptops since last spring from Boston Public Schools have yet to receive them, according to the advocacy group Lawyers for Civil Rights.

The organization said Thursday that it requested the district’s public records on Chromebook distribution after being contacted by desperate families of students struggling without laptops. The data, which Lawyers for Civil Rights released publicly, show in many cases students with disabilities and those at predominantly Black and Latino schools were less likely to receive laptops compared to their peers without disabilities or at whiter schools, the group said, raising questions about fairness and the enduring digital divide as Boston prepares to start school remotely Monday.

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Despite the district’s public promises to fulfill all laptop requests, at least 430 students with disabilities and at least 49 students without disabilities who have requested Chromebooks since March had not received one through August, though the numbers are likely higher as the data are incomplete, said Janelle Dempsey, an attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights.

“Since BPS plans to educate students remotely this fall, it has a legal obligation to ensure that all students have consistent and reliable access to the same opportunities," Dempsey said in a news release, “and that means — at a minimum — providing Chromebooks and Internet to students who cannot otherwise access these vital educational tools independently.”

In a phone interview, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the district mobilized staffers to deliver 32,000 laptops last spring and prioritized its most vulnerable students with the highest needs. She disputed that Black and Latino students were less likely to receive laptops, saying the district data showed far greater portions of those students received Chromebooks.

District data show 45 percent of Chromebooks went to Latino students and 36 percent went to Black students, who make up 42 percent and 30 percent of the district, respectively. White students, who make up 15 percent of the district, received 10 percent of computers.

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“The totality of the data will tell you kids of color were getting laptops at a much greater rate than white and Asian kids,” she said.

But Lawyers for Civil Rights said the data validate “community concerns at certain schools revealing inadequate allocation of resources along racial lines and disabilities."

For example, the group said, at Madison Park High School in Roxbury, where the student body is 50 percent Latino and 38 percent Black, more than 74 percent of students — both those with disabilities and those without — did not receive the Chromebooks they requested. At Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, which is more than 62 percent Black and 29 percent Latino, half of students with disabilities and 45 percent of non-disabled students who requested a Chromebook never received one.

Meanwhile, at the Joyce Kilmer K-8 School in West Roxbury, where more than 51 percent of students are white, the district fulfilled 97 percent of Chromebook requests from general-education students. And at the Warren-Prescott School in Charlestown, where 56 percent of students are white, the district delivered 97 percent of the Chromebooks requested by special-education students.

Cassellius acknowledged that as the pandemic hit, the district struggled amid the global rush for laptops to supply all 53,000 students with their own laptops, and many siblings had to share with each other. She said the district delivered another 5,000 laptops last week and is confident that a total of 40,000 Chromebooks will be in students' hands in upcoming weeks.

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“Just like many other districts in the Commonwealth having these supply issues, we’re really, really hounding our vendor to get these computers to us because we know there are students who still do not have their computer,” Cassellius said.

Cassellius said her team assessed equity and fairness of laptop distribution from the beginning of the pandemic and added there were many explanations for the data showing requests going unfulfilled.

Some students wrongfully requested computers when they didn’t need them, she said, or sometimes the district struggled to deliver laptops to families whose addresses had changed. She said some parents declined laptops because they thought their multiple children were fine sharing one. And some high school students preferred to work from their phones, she said. Also some families of means don’t need a laptop but may have been marked as requesting one, she said.

“We looked at equitable distribution of those computers so the kids with the highest needs would get them first,” Cassellius said. “That’s why I am so upset about this release. ... It’s not accurately painting the true contrast of the picture."

Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell said the district needed to do far better this fall.

“We now know that ‘family choice’ with respect to hybrid or fully remote instruction this fall is effectively meaningless for students whose families do not have the resources to provide their own laptop and internet for each child,” Campbell said in the release. “It is imperative that students have the necessary technology in order to learn regardless of whether they are in school or at home."

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Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.