They have been powerful educational tools, but in some Boston Public School students’ hands, Chromebooks have become something else lately: powerful weapons.
Over less than a week — between April 28 and May 3 — three students at three different schools were struck in the head by Chromebook-wielding assailants. One victim, a seventh-grader at the Richard Murphy School in Dorchester, required five stitches, while an eighth-grader at the Joyce Kilmer School in West Roxbury said she still has headaches after being struck on the head at least six times on May 2.
But the school department did not report the incidents to the police, police reports show, leaving that job to the victims’ parents, and raising concerns that Boston schools are not doing enough to protect students. The parents of all three victims said that the schools’ response was inadequate and that their children’s assailants were still at the same school.
“As a mother, it’s heartbreaking.” said Karen Pham, whose daughter was allegedly struck in the head and face by a boy with a laptop on April 28 at the Murphy School, leaving her bloodied. “My daughter’s friends overheard the student say he thought it was funny.”
The assaults come in a period of rising concern about violence in Boston Public Schools, which last fall eliminated the school police officers patrolling the halls of the 121 schools. In March, a teacher and student at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester were shot in the parking lot in what Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden called an act of “community terror.”
Outgoing Superintendent Brenda Cassellius called school safety “a really important topic for our families right now,” suggesting that isolation during the pandemic may have contributed to some students’ bad behavior. She said that the schools take any threat to student safety seriously — and develop safety plans to protect victims from further harm — but that it’s up to local school leaders to decide when to call police.
School Department policy requires school officials to call Boston police when there is an “immediate threat to health and safety,” Cassellius explained, but she acknowledged that is often a judgment call. In the case of a sexual assault or an active shooter, police would automatically be called in, she said, but it’s less clear-cut in other situations.
That discretion means there’s a whole range of sometimes-violent encounters that principals decided to handle internally, even though people involved feel like they were crime victims. Last week, a teacher at the McKinley Middle School told police she was burned in the face by a student who threw a cup of boiling ramen noodles in her face. The police report notes that the principal did not contact police.
Cassellius’ office defended the schools’ handling of both the laptop assaults and the noodles incident.
“In each case, the code of conduct (for student discipline) was followed and where appropriate, a safety plan has been put into place” to protect victims from additional harm, according to a statement from her office.
But parents of the victims in all three Chromebook assaults felt the attacks were serious enough to go to police. And they faulted school officials for not doing enough to support the victims.
Solanyi Peguero went to police after officials at the Kilmer school failed to report that her daughter had been struck in the head with a laptop more than six times, giving her a concussion. The assailant was a former friend, who threatened her, she said.
Peguero said the alleged assailant was suspended for a few days, but she has returned to school, intimidating her daughter.
“My daughter called me” after the assailant returned to school and said, “ ‘Mommy, I’m very scared,’ ” said Peguero, whose daughter still had headaches 10 days after the attack.
At Boston Latin Academy, a female student allegedly hit a male student over the head with a Chromebook, though he managed to blunt the impact with his hand. He saw the school nurse for treatment.
In the Murphy School case, Karen Pham has hired a lawyer who has notified city officials that the family is planning to sue for negligent supervision. The lawyer, John Peck, said Pham’s daughter had been subjected to bullying for years, but the schools did little to help her.
“We are seeking damages from Boston Public Schools after my client was subject to bullying and threats of violence for months, culminating in an assault on April 28, 2022,” said Peck. “The school knew of the threats of violence against my client — administrators and teachers knew a student was in danger — and nothing was done to protect her. My client now has a permanent scar on her face because of that inaction.”
BPS officials said they couldn’t comment on pending litigation.
Law enforcement officials also say they’ve had difficulty getting cooperation from the schools when they investigate the allegations.
Under a policy implemented by Cassellius, which she said conforms to federal student privacy laws, the school doesn’t immediately provide information about students to police. If law enforcement officials need information, they must appeal to the School Department’s lawyers, she said.
Prosecutors must subpoena records to get information necessary to bring criminal charges against any student or investigate an incident, the DA’s office confirmed.
Hayden said he was concerned about the school system’s reported lack of cooperation with law enforcement, saying, “We must never lose sight of the fact that ensuring a safe and constructive atmosphere for all Boston school students and staff is paramount.”
MBTA police superintendent Richard Sullivan said the School Department has not cooperated with his agency’s investigations for months.
“We’ve had a challenging year with youth disorder and juvenile assaults [on public transportation] and we’re not getting the cooperation from the Boston Public Schools,” Sullivan said.
It’s unclear whether crime in schools is rising. By March, police had responded to 795 incidents, compared to 951 during the 2019-2020 school year, according to department statistics. But that decline may reflect the fact that school officials are not often calling police, and police are no longer stationed in the schools, replaced last September with safety specialists without arrest powers, uniforms, or handcuffs.
State Representative Ed Coppinger, whose four daughters attended the Boston Public Schools, said his experience with safety in public schools has been “unbelievably great” until this year.
“My daughter comes home with stories,” he said. “She’s not dramatic. She just says what happened. My phone started lighting up in February. All of a sudden, everything seemed to be peaking.”
City Councilor Michael Flaherty said some “victims end up having to leave the school for safety and support and the whole school community gets turned upside down because the kids causing the problems stay and cause more problems.”
Pham and Peguero both said that, since their daughters’ attackers are still at the same school, they feel like their daughters are the ones being penalized. .
They have been offered placements in other schools, but don’t see why they should have to leave.
Pham said her daughter tells her, “‘I have my friends here. Why do I have to be punished?”
Cassellius said she has put in place supports for both the perpetrators and the victims.
“I can only imagine how difficult it is for students, particularly after the pandemic, when anyone might be bullying you or you get hit with a computer,” she said. “Of course they would feel nervous or scared returning.
“That’s why it’s so important that we get the professionals involved and we develop a safety plan for each student” who has been victimized, Cassellius said.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.