For decades, Boston’s public schools hired police officers to monitor their hallways, a consistent source of comfort and controversy. But when students returned to class in September after more than a year of learning from home, the officers were gone, quietly replaced with safety specialists without arrest powers, uniforms, or handcuffs.
Since then, the schools have witnessed an alarming number of attacks, one of which left a principal severely injured, that have raised concerns about public safety, particularly given the emotional distress teenagers have experienced during the pandemic. Last week, a teacher and student at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester were shot in the school parking lot in what Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden called an act of “community terror.”
With no school-employed officers, it has fallen on regular police and the city’s school police unit to handle emergencies at schools in the neighborhoods they patrol. Between the first day of school and Thanksgiving break, the most recent 911 call data available from Boston Public Schools, police responded to 177 incidents at 62 schools across the city.
More than one-quarter of the 911 calls were for incidents involving fighting or assault. And these emergency calls represent only the most serious issues. Teachers, deans, and school safety specialists reported more than 4,000 other incidents to school administrators from September through November, which can range from disrupting class to cutting school or trespassing.
So far this school year, police have responded to 795 incidents, compared to 951 during the 2019-2020 school year, according to department statistics. A police spokesman said that because school officers filed reports using the city’s system, it’s difficult to determine whether the drop reflects an actual decrease in incidents. However, citywide crime data indicates that aggravated assault is the only violent crime to increase this year, with 309 incidents of non-domestic assault through March 20, compared to 247 last year.
Police officers were phased out of BPS last summer in response to the state’s Police Reform Law, passed in December 2020. The law required all specialty law enforcement workers, including school police, to obtain roughly 350 additional training hours by July 2021 to keep their positions. Rather than retain a school police force, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius elected to replace officers with school safety specialists, who don’t carry handcuffs or have the power to arrest students.
In past years, disputes over how heavily school officers should be armed raised concerns about a school-to-prison pipeline that unfairly targets students of color. In 2014, then-city councilor Ayanna Pressley worried arming officers could cause schools “to become a police state.”
“Prior to the bill, we were already looking at overpolicing in schools. The reform bill made us put things into action,” said Neva Coakley-Grice, a former school police officer who heads the new team of safety specialists. Specialists are not required to have a background in law enforcement, and Grice said many of them are counselors and former educators, though a few are ex-police. The shift was prompted by calls to reduce the presence of police in schools after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, Grice said, and took into account the opinions of students and community members.
“Our kids were very vocal with that, and we listened,” she added. “I think this is the best model for Boston, and I don’t think it lessens our ability to serve young people in the schools, in partnership with Boston police.”
For many schools, a fraught return to classes and the immense toll of the pandemic has led to a surge of disciplinary problems. At Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury, there were 52 incidents that required a 911 response during the first three months of school, one for each day students were in class. Eighteen of them involved police.
“It’s like every day that kids are fighting, more this year than in past years,” said Bobby Jenkins, a longtime member of the school’s alumni association. “A lot of these kids come from violent areas ... so we all got to pull ourselves together to make it safe [at school] for kids and families.”
Parents and community members said the pandemic is largely to blame for the emotional and mental health challenges causing teenagers to act out at school. But alarmed by the violence taking place at school and determined to keep their kids safe, some families are calling for a return of officers to schools, while others believe a reduction in violence is possible without added police presence.
“They’ve gone backwards in terms of their social-emotional skills. It’s like muscles— if you don’t use them, you lose them,” said Emmett Folgert, senior adviser of Safe City Dorchester at MissionSAFE, which has added social workers and other staff to handle the skyrocketing need for support. Folgert called on schools to follow suit.
“We need more staff, and we need them to be aware that COVID traumatized and isolated kids . . . so it’s about relationships first, but we’ve got to be ready to set some boundaries because they lost that, too,” he said. “Kill them with love, kill them with attention, kill them with limit-setting.”
In an emergency, safety specialists call 911 to alert Boston police, who are now the primary responders to serious incidents on school grounds. But some officers believe police presence in schools is important to keep incidents from escalating into a crisis.
“Police are not in there unless it’s an emergency, and what does that tell you? That it’s a little too late to prevent it,” said Larry Ellison, a detective on Boston’s citywide school police unit. With school officers who can build relationships with students over time, “we can get out ahead of things to keep these kids from getting into trouble or hurting themselves or others.”
State Representative Ed Coppinger, whose two youngest daughters attend public school in Boston, said he supports a multidimensional approach to public safety in schools that includes assigned police officers.
“I’m definitely in favor of some of the police being put back in because, from speaking with teachers and administrators, they feel like the students causing these problems are doing so because they don’t feel there are any real consequences,” he said. “But I also think there should be counselors in schools dealing with it. It can’t just be black or white guidelines, it’s gotta be a total team effort.”
But Suleika Soto, a parent organizer at the Boston Education Justice Alliance and mother of two, said she’s hopeful student violence can be reduced without bringing back patrolmen.
“We have a guidance counselor, we have a psychologist, we have a social worker, and we need to see more of those support staff rather than adding more police,” Soto said. “I don’t think accountability is them being arrested . . . we have to understand what led to them behaving the way that they behaved.”
Soto’s oldest daughter is an eighth-grader at TechBoston Academy, where last week’s shooting occurred. The school reported 16 emergency incidents within the first three months of school, half of which required a police response. Soto said she feels largely in the dark about what goes on at school, and was completely blindsided by the shooting.
“If things were more transparent, I would probably be more worried, but there’s no notification about violence from the school,” she said. “There needs to be more communication.”
Jessy Feliz, a ninth-grader at the McCormack School BCLA in Dorchester, said he “actually felt safer” when police were in schools. “But obviously police officers that look like us, that are from the area, that have been through things we’ve been through, so we can actually talk about it,” he added, pointing to officers like Claude DeFay, a Black officer with the city’s school police unit who frequently stops by the MissionSAFE center to spend time with students.
McCormack had eight incidents during the first three months of school that required a police response, and Feliz said there have been so many fights this year, he’s lost count.
“They were back to back the first three or four days of school, and that convinced me that all that negativity people had with them during the pandemic, they just brought it with them to school,” he said. Feliz explained that teachers break up most fights now, along with the safety specialists, but many faculty members are afraid to get involved.
“They’re trying their best, but there have been a couple teachers getting hurt trying to break up fights, so the teachers are scared,” he said, adding that he believes his school needs more mental health and counseling resources. More security would help, too, he said, “but I don’t think guns are necessary at all.”
Tom McKeever, spokesman for the union representing administrative staff in the public schools, said teachers and staff were unable to comment because “they are fearful of retaliation” from the schools.
Mikal Welch, a Black student at Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury, said the safety specialists do a pretty good job of responding to fights, which he said happen about once a month. Welch said students are “pretty well-behaved,” and worries adding police could do more harm than good.
“It would make students uncomfortable, especially in a place with a lot of minorities,” he said. “There are people here who might be traumatized by things that have happened in the past, and so having more police would just be stressful.”
When asked if police should be part of the in-school solution, Madison Park alumni Jenkins said, “I guess they have to be. What happens when you find a gun in the school? Who do you call?”
But Jenkins, who works as an adviser at SchoolFacts Boston, stressed that any officer dealing with kids should be properly trained in how to engage with them. “We need to have that beat cop in the schools who sees these kids in a different light,” he said.
Ellison, the Boston school police detective, agreed.
“Definitely deescalating, diversity training, and more work on mental health. We should know if there’s something that may be triggering their behavior, and how to respond to it,” he said. “And that doesn’t get captured in a 911 call.”