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Boston Public Schools’ proposed school safety positions draw outcry from juvenile justice advocates

Boston police had a visible presence at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in October, following incidents in which police said a student shot another student outside the school and separately in September, police said a student stabbed another student at the school.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Earlier this month, Boston Public Schools proposed hiring 18 more staffers to connect with young people deemed to be involved, or at risk of becoming involved, with gangs and other violence, including monitoring their social media and activities after school, and at transit stops and other hot spots.

But amid an outcry from juvenile justice advocates, who said the program would result in the overpolicing of Black and Latino students, the city is reframing the effort as focused on connecting students with social services and other kinds of help.

Mayor Michelle Wu and BPS officials issued statements this week saying the new hires would also help students and their families address housing, food access, and other socioeconomic problems. The district said it couldn’t provide current job descriptions as they were being revised, and that it was continuing its community engagement process seeking feedback from advocates, families, and students.

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A BPS spokesperson said Tuesday the new positions would “primarily focus on supporting students and their families’ needs through a public health lens, including addressing food insecurity, providing resources for stable housing, mental health support, and economic opportunity.”

As originally proposed at a Dec. 12 forum, however, the vision sounded much different. At the presentation, officials said the new staff would work during and after school, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and talk to students, track social media for potential conflicts, and intervene in fights or arrests at Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority stations and other hot spots. They would not be police officers, though they would need to communicate with police, officials said.

The proposal met almost immediate backlash.

“Boston’s plan — to create, using unclear and capacious criteria, a list of students whom the District will then more closely monitor by physically following them after school and observing them on social media — will inevitably disproportionately harm students of color, particularly Black and Latinx students, and students with disabilities,” said a Dec. 16 letter to BPS Superintendent Mary Skipper from the EdLaw Project, Black Advocates for Educational Excellence, Citizens for Juvenile Justice, Greater Boston Legal Services, and Massachusetts Advocates for Children.

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The back-and-forth highlights the challenges district leaders face as they try to address the urgent needs of students in the aftermath of the pandemic, including emotional instability and disrupted social development, while also trying to keep them safe amid a significant increase in youth weapons arrests and worries about police involvement. Boston police logged 102 juvenile gun arrests through October of this year, far outpacing the number of such arrests for the entire years of 2019, 2020, and 2021, the Globe has reported.

Wu said in a statement: “Over conversations in our classrooms, community centers, and neighborhoods, I’ve heard consistently that for schools to remain a safe space for all, we need to wrap around supports before and after school, and throughout our communities.”

To address concerns of overpolicing, the district phased out its school police force in 2021 in favor of security guards who don’t wear police uniforms, carry handcuffs, or have arrest powers.

District officials presented the draft plan for the new hires last week at a Community Equity Roundtable, regular meetings aimed at making policies more equitable for students from marginalized backgrounds.

Superintendent Skipper said the new positions were an effort to interrupt a troubling pattern the district has noticed: Students are getting arrested at T stops and other places where there are no adults around who know them.

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“This is just an attempt to think about in a creative way: How do we extend the relationship from the school day in the community for our students in a different way?” she said.

Several high-profile violent incidents have occurred at BPS schools this year, including a shooting of a student and a stabbing of another student, both allegedly by students, at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School and a shooting outside the Joseph Lee K-8 School in Dorchester, leading to the arrests of two teenagers. Safety is a top worry among BPS parents, with 7 of 10 surveyed in a recent MassINC poll saying they were concerned about their children’s physical safety at school.

The initial job descriptions and statements that BPS shared at the forum made no mention of health, food, housing, or poverty, though they did say the new staffers would help coordinate services for students.

Officials shared draft job descriptions that said the new hires would work with students at schools where incidents have occurred, building relationships with youth involved in incidents, mediating conflicts between youth, visiting the homes of disengaged youth, and spending time at T stations and transit hubs where police have reported incidents involving students.

Preferred skills for the position, the initial job description said, would include familiarity with social media to advise BPS staff of potential conflicts between young people. Candidates must understand the trends and culture that contribute to gang violence, it said.

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Several community members at the meeting criticized the initial proposal.

Edith Bazile, a former BPS administrator and executive director of Black Advocates for Educational Excellence, said the positions sent a harmful message to Black students that schools expect them to be violent.

“Please, let’s not pretend this is not targeted to Black children — it is,” Bazile said. “When it comes to Black students, we don’t have a Black student achievement agenda. It is always about surveillance, racial profiling, segregation, special education, suspensions, discipline.”

In their letter to Skipper, juvenile justice advocates highlighted the potential racial disparities that could result from the new employees working with law enforcement.

More than 75 percent of people in Boston’s law enforcement gang database are Black men or Black teenagers, the letter stated, so if BPS proceeded with its plan to “monitor” students at risk of gang involvement, “the District will be creating a similar database of Black and Latinx children.”

Paulina Mendes Javier, 16, a sophomore at Boston Latin Academy who attended the forum, said she understood the need for a greater sense of security in schools but felt the positions could heighten students’ distrust of the school system.

“In the presence of these figures, some people’s actions might be misunderstood,” Mendes Javier said. “I know if I’m being watched by a person like this, like a security or police officer, I might be thinking to myself, ‘Oh, I hope I don’t look suspicious.’”

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She said the district should enhance ways for students to connect with those who they feel more comfortable with and are from their neighborhoods, like other students who could be peer mentors as well as teachers, social workers, and family liaisons.

Read the advocates’ letter:


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com. Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.