It hasn’t even been a week since students returned to the classroom and unfortunately there’s already been a violent incident involving a Boston Public School. On Monday, an 18-year-old male student was reportedly stabbed inside the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester.
That’s the type of violent incident reported in and around Boston’s public and charter schools last fall that prompted the Rev. David Searles, a pastor in East Boston, to take action. Earlier this year, Searles founded Boston SOS, which stands for Safety of Our Schools. He calls it a community movement with parents, nonprofit leaders, and other education stakeholders as members and partners.
But Boston SOS is also a result of what Searles sees as the reluctance of city and school leaders to engage meaningfully with education stakeholders. The pastor and the members of Boston SOS do have a point: What is the Boston Public Schools’ safety plan? Is there a safety crisis in Boston schools? You won’t hear an elected or appointed official say that they are not for school safety. But “if incidents continue to happen, the school safety plan in place must not be working,” Searles said.
Ultimately, for Boston SOS, there’s not a lot of confidence that schools are safe environments right now and not enough clarity on how the city is responding to an increase across the city in youth carrying guns. Because of that, Boston SOS came up with its own safety plan.
“Our early work was primarily to draw attention to the severity [of the events] and that this was not just some isolated incident in a school here or there, but it seemed to be more of a systemwide reality,” Searles told me. To that end, the organization’s website lists some of those reported safety incidents, such as the student at the Community Academy of Science and Health in Dorchester who allegedly brought a stolen gun to school and the bag of bullets found at Boston Latin Academy.
Searles said the list is not exhaustive. Bullying complaints are also reportedly on the rise at the Boston Public Schools: they increased more than 80 percent compared to the 2018 school year, the last full year of in-person instruction, according to GBH News’ Meg Woolhouse. “We were having problems with the school department not really sharing information” at the time of specific incidents, Mike Kozu said in an interview. He’s co-director of Project RIGHT Inc., a nonprofit established to address violence in Grove Hall that is an affiliated partner of Boston SOS. “Last year, there were over 12 guns that were seized from the Boston schools. So we felt that there needs to be better communication.”
And better planning. Already state authorities have chided BPS for lacking a consistent and effective process to track and respond to parental complaints about student bullying and other safety incidents.
So because “the city wasn’t presenting [a plan], and the school wasn’t presenting one in response to our inquiry,” Searles said members of the group met and collaborated on what the appropriate and good features of a safety plan should be to keep every student in a Boston school safe.
Some of those features are not without controversy. Boston SOS wants to see metal detectors used in all middle and high schools and the return of BPS school police, which were removed from BPS last school year.
“I’ve had conversations with city councilors about this … and people really push back on metal detectors,” said Searles. People don’t want schools to feel like prisons. Fair enough. But Searles is right to ask: Does a school feel safe with a loaded gun or a knife carried in by a student?
BPS did not respond specifically to a request for comment about Boston SOS’ plan to bring back metal detectors and school police officers systemwide. A spokesperson said that BPS partners “with the Boston Police Department on active shooter training and are currently upgrading processes and scheduling training for all BPS staff.”
“We have to be realistic,” Kozu told me. Because of the pandemic, “there’s been more and more young people engaged and impacted by violence. More young people are currently carrying weapons and that needs to be addressed. Metal detectors are one way.” Both Kazu and Searles point to the ubiquity of metal detectors in many environments, including City Hall. As for school officers, “people had a misconception of what they did,” said Kazu. “Their primary role really wasn’t to criminalize young people, they’re really trying to address very clear safety issues.”
To be clear, the district is currently dealing with several fires, including the perennial issue of late buses, as well as the temporary closure of the Orange Line. And there’s the leadership transition with new superintendent Mary Skipper officially starting later this month.
But Boston SOS is right to put pressure on city officials and school leaders on an issue that’s only going to become more pertinent and urgent. Parents deserve answers.