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Boston mayoral hopefuls, debating in person for the first time, clash over school police, other issues

Some candidates demand immediate action on the addiction crisis at Mass and Cass

At Wednesday’s candidates forum, held at Suffolk County Jail, inmate Autumn Harris (middle) posed a question.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Candidates vying to become Boston’s mayor tangled over school policing, the addiction crisis raging along Melnea Cass Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, and strategies to curb violence at a public forum Wednesday on criminal justice and public safety.

All six candidates agreed that expanded educational, housing, employment, and economic opportunities are needed to address entrenched public safety problems.

But City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George drew sharp responses when she defended the need for school resource officers as a growing number of districts question whether police should be in the schools.

Essaibi George said schools need to be safe and that the school-to-prison pipeline is “not directly related to school police officers.” Its primary cause, she said, is “the broken education system,” which puts Black and Latino students in separate classrooms and away from crucial services.

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“That is the portion of the system that is broken,” she said, adding that school resource officers serve as mentors to students and are a good “presence in the schools.”

But her City Council colleague, Michelle Wu, said students deserve to be in schools similar to those in the suburbs, where they don’t have to worry about using the bathroom, drinking the water, and learning in schools that “feel like a prison.”

“Our students deserve extracurriculars, arts, sports,’' Wu said. “They deserve everything that those suburban kids have, and that starts with the feeling that they are there to be supported and loved and seen and treasured and not criminalized.’'

City Councilor Andrea Campbell cited reports that she said show“when you discipline kids and you have school resource officers who, frankly, are deputized as police in our schools, it leads to overincarceration,’' she said. “It starts the pipeline and leads to our folks being here.”

The forum was held at the Suffolk County House of Correction, attended by people in the facility and moderated by Sheriff Steven Tompkins. It was the first time the candidates had debated in person after weeks of virtual forums. The shift was notable, as the candidates defended their views with passion and turned toward each other when making a point.

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Candidates also fielded questions about their plans for helping children whose parents are incarcerated , providing opportunities for low-income families, and tackling issues of addiction, mental health, and homelessness. At times their answers were intensely personal.

Janey recalled an uncle who was Black, gay, and poor. He “died with a needle up his arm,” she said. Wu shared her mother’s battle with mental illness and “self-medicating with alcohol.” Campbell talked about her twin brother, a pretrial detainee who died while in the custody of the Department of Correction.

John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development, told a story of a cousin who had been wrongly convicted of murder. State Representative Jon Santiago, an emergency room doctor, described the toll of treating patients with addiction. And Essaibi George, a former teacher, recounted working with students in crisis.

Discussing the drug and public safety crisis at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in the South End, Janey said her administration plans to address the problem in “the same way we did COVID,’' adding that she is working on creating a diverse “working group” to help deal with the crisis.

Campbell, Barros, Wu, and Santiago, who have all unveiled plans for the troubled area, said what is needed now is action.

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Barros cited data that “more people are dying on our streets,” that deaths of Black and brown men have spiked, and that HIV cases are on the rise in the area.

“These numbers are real. These are people and so I don’t know about plans,” Barros said. “We need to hit the streets now. We need to triple the team on the streets now and get services on the streets right now, and we need to do it now — not in some meeting.”

Santiago, an emergency room doctor at nearby Boston Medical Center, said he is advocating for regionalized modern services for that area and that he has the background and relationships with Beacon Hill to get things done.

“This is not just a city issue,’' Santiago said. “One in four people in the state of Massachusetts knows someone impacted by substance use. These aren’t just random people. This is someone’s mother, someone’s daughter.”

But Janey said a regional approach would be likely to draw opposition.

“I don’t see any communities raising their hand to say, ‘Hey, we want services and treatment here,’” she said.

Campbell said she would establish a “Mass. and Cass” chief to “specifically own this issue” and a responder unit to better coordinate city services for those in need. It would include mental health clinicians and recovery specialists. She said she supports using Long Island as a place for those in recovery to receive treatment.

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“We don’t need another plan, we don’t need another working group; we need action,’' she said, noting the “whole host of ideas on the table to change what we’re seeing down there right now.”


Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.