City Councilor Erin Murphy recently has come under fire after repeatedly reporting that Boston Public Schools last year had 744 reported sexual assaults, a characterization disputed by the district.
Last week, Murphy was accused on social media for pushing the number in attempt to support her call for police to be brought back into schools.
So, exactly how many sexual assaults were reported in BPS in 2021-22? It’s unclear; BPS doesn’t disaggregate the number of incidents reported that could be considered sexual assault from its overall number of sexual misconduct reports.
Here’s a breakdown of why that is and how the district handles incidents deemed sexual in nature:
How does the district distinguish misconduct and assault?
In district documents, BPS defines sexual misconduct as “sexually inappropriate comments and/or behaviors of any kind.”
Actions that violate this policy range from “requests for sexual favors” and “sexual jokes or references” to “sexual activity that is forced, coerced, or unwanted” and “non-consensual sexual contact.”
BPS officials said the term sexual assault implies criminal conduct, something the legal system must determine, not the district. The district instead determines whether the action violated BPS policy and is classified as sexual misconduct.
“We continue to clarify the difference between sexual assault and sexual misconduct,” said Max Baker, a BPS spokesperson. “Each year, only a handful of cases end up with any criminal charges.”
Is this just a matter of semantics?
Last July, district officials told Murphy via e-mail that the latest report, “EQT-03, Sexual Misconduct Towards Students,” showed 744 incidents for 2021-22.
Murphy said she understands the BPS misconduct data could have a range of behaviors reported, but said the actions are still sexual in nature and “outrageous,” regardless of how they are labeled. Criticism over labeling the data as assault is coming from people she believes are trying “to downplay or hide” the incidents, she said.
“To have this overwhelming pushback about semantics and concern that ‘is it misconduct, or is it actually assault?’ I don’t think that’s going to get us where we need to be,” said Murphy, the vice chairwoman of the City Council’s education committee. “I think we should be above that; I’m above it. I’m ready to have these hard conversations. But people want to hide behind words.”
BPS is required to publicly report any incidents that result in student discipline, regardless of whether it occurred on district property, to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. DESE defines sexual battery or assault as “penetration forcibly or against the person’s will or where the victim is incapable of giving consent” and defines harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, other physical or verbal conduct/communication of a sexual nature.”
Boston reported to the state that seven students were disciplined for what DESE classifies as sexual assault, and 59 students were disciplined for sexual harassment, during the 2021-22 school year.
What is the district’s reporting process?
District employees who see or are told about an incident that may violate the district’s sexual misconduct policy are required to inform the campus principal, assistant principal, or other administrators who then investigate the incident. Principals and administrators then are required to report the incident to the Office of Equity.
The district must report any allegations made by students that could be considered a crime to law enforcement or the Department of Children and Families. Incidents that BPS does not think rise to the level of a crime, like a joke that is sexual in nature, may be addressed through counseling, coaching, or educational programming. Such acts are the majority of the incidents that violate the district’s sexual misconduct policy, according to BPS.
Has BPS seen an increase in the number of reports?
Between 2018 and 2022, reports of student-on-student sexual misconduct rose in BPS from 371 to 759, an increase that Murphy and three other councilors also have pointed to in advocating for tighter security in schools, including bringing back a police presence on campuses.
District officials attribute the rise in reported incidents to more people in the district’s actively reporting incidents since returning to in-person learning. Additionally, officials said more educators became aware of the reporting process following last year’s third-party investigation into Boston’s Mission Hill K-8; that investigation revealed institutional failures that endangered children for years and included incidents of sexual abuse and bullying.
At the start of the school year, all school leaders were asked to remind staff of their reporting responsibilities. District officials said they followed up with all BPS employees, regardless of their roles, to ensure they read and understood the district’s policy related to sexual misconduct.
Any school administrators who had not previously received the district’s equity protocols training, which instructs them about their reporting responsibilities and how BPS investigations work, have also been required to go through the mandatory training.
“It’s difficult to identify the causes of the uptick conclusively,” said Becky Shuster, the district’s assistant superintendent of equity. “Still, we assume two key factors are the continuing impacts of the trauma sustained by our students due to the pandemic and a welcome increase in schools reporting incidents.”