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Amid school violence, frustrated law enforcement officials say Boston Public Schools leaving them in the dark

Suffolk DA has begun seeking subpoenas to compel schools to provide information

A Boston Police vehicle passing through the parking lot at TechBoston Academy in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The MBTA police needed a little help investigating the May 11 stabbing of a student at the Nubian Square Station. They knew the suspect’s name but needed to confirm that he attended Dearborn Stem Academy and where he lived.

School officials wouldn’t tell them.

So the MBTA police took an extraordinary step: They filed a child abuse complaint against a school department official, citing her “deliberate negligence in not providing information relative to an imminent health and safety issue regarding the safety of students at Dearborn Stem Academy.”

City officials were incensed — and state officials quickly rejected the complaint — but the action reflected law enforcement’s mounting frustration at what it sees as greatly diminished cooperation from Boston Public Schools in reporting and helping investigate crimes involving students.

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Schools are providing far less information to investigators voluntarily than in previous years because of a 2020 school policy meant to protect students’ privacy. It requires law enforcement officials to get approval from BPS lawyers or obtain a subpoena or court order for information about students except in extreme emergencies, such as an active shooter situation.

As a result, Suffolk District Attorney Kevin Hayden this year repeatedly has been forced to seek subpoenas from a grand jury to compel school officials to provide even basic information such as names and addresses, according to a spokesperson. Hayden said the added legal step slows his office’s ability to investigate threats to student safety.

“With all the tragic incidents we’ve seen in schools nationally, it’s clear to me that sensible, timely communication regarding dangerous school situations is more important than ever,” Hayden said in a statement.

Community advocates say the schools’ limits on information sharing with police are needed to protect students from overzealous law enforcement. They say that police should have to show why they need the information to ensure there’s a real safety purpose.

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“The harm of student information ending up in law enforcement databases, including gang databases . . . is so great that it was a necessary step to limit that sharing of information,” said Leon Smith, executive director of Boston-based Citizens for Juvenile Justice.

But law enforcement officials say the reduced cooperation is compounded by the fact that police officers were removed from schools last fall because they didn’t have the level of training required under the state’s police reform law.

As a result, police know far less about what’s happening in the public schools.

That has left some police willing to try desperate measures to force greater cooperation. In addition to the child abuse complaint from the T police, Boston police have filed at least two child abuse reports against school officials for failing to report crimes — a stabbing and a sexual assault.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that my officers feel the need to resort to filing a 51a,” using shorthand to refer to a child abuse report, said MBTA Transit Police Superintendent Richard Sullivan. “I 100 percent support [officers’] efforts to protect the safety and well-being of students and victims.”

City officials call the child abuse complaint baseless, noting that the state Department of Children and Families not only rejected the complaint, but expunged it from its database. “This 51a report was found to be frivolous and is evidence only of inappropriate behavior by the Transit Police officer who filed it,” said a city spokesperson.

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BPS confirmed that former superintendent Brenda Cassellius had taken a strict interpretation of the 1974 Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, determining that, in most cases, law enforcement may obtain information about individual students only with “parental consent, judicial court order or lawful subpoena.”

Cassellius and former mayor Martin J. Walsh proposed the restricted information-sharing after a 2017 incident in which a school police officer incorrectly labeled a student as a gang associate and the information was used to help justify his deportation to his native El Salvador. The School Committee adopted the policy in September 2020 while students were mostly learning remotely due to COVID-19.

School officials say the policy allows officials to provide a student’s name, school, and dates of enrollment without a subpoena or court order. But law enforcement officials said that has not been their experience. They say they are given that information only when they already know a student’s identity.

The policy has contributed to standoffs like the one in May at Madison Park Vocational Technical High School when some students said a parent showed a gun during a fight. Police say the assistant head of schools declined to reveal the names of the parents and students involved when they investigated hours later.

May 13, 2022
An adult reportedly flashed a gun during a fight outside Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. The school wouldn’t provide information about involved adults or students, police say.Ryan Huddle/Globe staff

The administrator “was unable to or declined to indulge because of BPS regulations,” the police report said.

Other school systems such as Springfield, Lawrence, Quincy, and Chelsea are more willing to share information with police, including video surveillance tapes, according to school and law enforcement officials there. District attorneys from the counties surrounding Boston say they are not required to seek subpoenas to obtain student information from schools.

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“The idea of a police department having to get a subpoena for any kind of simple information is ridiculous,” said Sean Burke, president of the School Safety Advocacy Council, a national group that provides safety training to schools and law enforcement alike.

Burke, a former longtime school resource officer in Lawrence, said Boston is misreading the federal law: “It’s completely false. FERPA doesn’t cover information like names, date of birth, address, or telephone number. FERPA only covers educational records.”

Mayor Michelle Wu stresses that schools do cooperate with police in countless other ways. Her acting police commissioner, Greg Long, recently said, “Our police department and our schools work together every day.”

In an interview, Wu said the schools put a premium on student safety.

“This is a large urban school district and we take every single incident of any student or educator or school community member feeling unsafe or experiencing any form of violence very, very seriously,” Wu said.

She said her two sons attend Boston schools and “we have had only an experience that has been supportive, nurturing, and fun for my two guys, who are 4 and 7.”

The tensions with law enforcement come at a time when Boston schools are already facing criticism for not doing enough to keep their 49,000 students safe. Just this May, the state issued a blistering report, citing a litany of concerns including the district’s inability to “ensure a safe environment for all students.”

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School officials have also faced criticism from parents for handling violent incidents internally rather than reporting them to the police. The Globe reported on three assaults this spring in which one student beat another with a Chromebook laptop, leaving one child bloodied and another with a concussion. In all three cases, the parents — rather than the schools — told the police.

May 3, 2022
Police say Boston Latin Academy declined to provide information about a student who allegedly assaulted another with a Chromebook.Ryan Huddle/Globe staff

Wu said that, overall, statistics show there has been no significant increase in school violence, but there have been challenges in the first year back in school after the pandemic.

“We have seen an increase in reports of bullying, which is quite concerning,” Wu said, “At the same time, I am very glad that our young people and school communities are feeling empowered knowing how to report these experiences so that we can address them.”

While there are still some safety officers in the Boston schools, they don’t have uniforms or police powers, like their predecessors. Almost all other school systems in Massachusetts have trained police in their schools, though they are called school resource officers, not school police. Boston’s school police force was unique in Massachusetts, with limited formal training and members who were either unable or unwilling to attend a full-time police academy because of their age or physical limitations.

Cassellius said in May that she had no philosophical objection to having police in the schools, but that last year’s police reform law made it impossible for them to remain because they didn’t have the requisite training.

However, Cassellius and other school officials said they were already working on a plan to reduce policing in schools before the reform law took effect.

”The reform bill made us put things into action,” Neva Coakley-Grice, the head of the school safety officers, said in March. The shift was prompted by calls to reduce the presence of police in schools during the racial reckoning prompted by George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, Coakley-Grice said, and reflected the opinions of students and community members.

City Councilor Erin Murphy, who taught in BPS for 20 years, said many parents believe the schools have become less safe this year, even if the data shows no increase in reported crime.

“Parents are putting in for transfers,” said Murphy, whose two children both attended the public schools. “School after school, families are reaching out for help transferring their kids based on school safety.”

Indeed, Chanel Thompson’s 15-year-old daughter transferred out of Boston Arts Academy this year after she was assaulted — twice.

Thompson said she warned the school on the day that she believed her daughter would be attacked the second time, March 14, and asked that her daughter be escorted at dismissal time to a waiting Uber. But no one came, Thompson said, except a gang of five girls who shoved her daughter to the ground and pummeled her, recorded in a video shared on social media.

“This was a disgusting, scary, and disappointing experience,” said Thompson. “We are slowly picking up the pieces.”

BPS did not respond to a request for comment on the incident.

MBTA police say that they’re also concerned about student behavior on the way to and from school. The stabbing that led to the filing of the child abuse complaint unfolded at around 4 p.m. at the Nubian Square MBTA Station as two groups of teens started to brawl.

One T official said he told school officials that the assault was very serious: “A juvenile got stabbed. We’re concerned he (the attacker) is going to finish the job.”

But school officials refused to provide the information about the alleged attacker.

And the larger debate over how much Boston schools should cooperate with law enforcement remains unresolved.

Burke, the school safety expert, said BPS is putting itself in a vulnerable position by distancing itself from police.

“If you cut the police and you don’t report things, then you have no problem with violence because no one is reporting it,” said Burke. “That’s the first sign of trouble.”

James Vaznis, Ivy Scott, and Christopher Huffaker of the Globe’s Great Divide team contributed to this report.


Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.