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OPINION

Youth violence in Boston schools cries out for reforms

Parents want metal detectors and officers in every school. Meanwhile, BPS is considering installing security cameras.

A Boston police vehicle passed through the parking lot at TechBoston Academy in March 2022.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A large brawl and stabbings near TechBoston Academy in Dorchester sent three Boston Public Schools students to the hospital last week. On Thursday, a middle school student was reportedly found carrying a knife at the James F. Condon School in South Boston; luckily school staff confiscated the weapon and no one was hurt. Meanwhile, at the City on a Hill charter school in Roxbury that same day, staff allegedly found a 16-year-old girl with several weapons, including a meat cleaver, a Taser, and a kitchen knife.

Parents and community groups say they are getting increasingly worried about school violence in Boston, particularly what seems to be a lack of citywide strategies to fight it. “Recent school safety incidents give more evidence that we are in a school safety crisis,” Boston SOS, or Safety of Our Schools, wrote in a press release. The organization has been working for about a year to elevate awareness of violent incidents in schools as well as to push district leaders to adopt common-sense measures.

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“We believe there are weapons every day going into Boston schools,” Boston SOS founder the Rev. David Searles told me. “How many knives have gone undetected? It’s a ticking time bomb. Are [district and city leaders] waiting for a catastrophic moment to act?”

Searles raises important questions, and he is right that BPS and local charters need a better response. However, the solutions he and others are proposing are controversial, such as bringing back into all schools metal detectors and resource officers, which were removed in 2021 and replaced with ununiformed safety specialists without the power to arrest. But at this point, all policies must be on the table. There are approximately 26 metal detectors being used in 22 schools, according to a BPS spokesperson.

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Last month, a consultant — in a safety audit mandated by the state’s education agency when it signed an improvement plan with BPS last summer — recommended that the district rethink police presence. The independent report recommends a focus group to consider if BPS should “form an internal, sworn police department,” among other policies. The report also noted that school staff said they spend more time dealing with safety issues and less time in the classroom. That’s unacceptable.

In a statement, Superintendent Mary Skipper said BPS is “actively reviewing” the report’s recommendations. “We are creating the structures and supports — school by school and student by student,” Skipper said. Each school individually decides whether or not to use metal detectors, she said. Additionally, the district is investing in security cameras, according to the spokesperson, noting that Skipper will ensure that cameras don’t infringe on students’ privacy rights.

Some Boston city councilors support metal detectors and the return of officers to schools. But opponents worry that the changes will only serve to criminalize Black and Latino children, who make up the vast majority of the BPS student population. Those policies, they say, only reinforce the school-to-prison pipeline.

For Marta Polanco, an East Boston parent who is originally from El Salvador, the urgent safety crisis should outweigh those concerns. She has an 11-year-old daughter at McKay K-8 School and a 16-year-old son at East Boston High School. As a volunteer with Boston SOS, she is in favor of stricter security measures.

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“I am always alarmed when I hear of what’s going on in other schools,” Polanco said in an interview in Spanish. She said that, to her knowledge, there haven’t been violent incidents at either of her children’s schools. “When I send them to school every day, I am to a certain extent leaving them in the hands and care of [BPS],” she said. But Polanco said she won’t be fully confident that her kids are safe until the district takes three steps: “put metal detectors [in every school], [put] police officers specifically trained to work with youth of color in every school, and hire more mental health counselors.”

Polanco and other parents I spoke to agree that metal detectors are not a cure-all. Metal detectors may not directly prevent a fight from happening on school grounds, but they may very well deter youth from bringing in weapons. “If they help catch some weapons, that’s potentially preventing fatal incidents,” said Lissi Guerrero, who has three children at the Mario Umana K-8 Academy in East Boston.

Jess Hamilton, a Hyde Park resident with two children at the Roosevelt K-8 School, said that part of the challenge is the lack of transparency around the scope of the problem. “My frustration is that some incidents are not even reported publicly,” Hamilton said.

These parents are right. More transparency and decisive action is needed from the district. Why not bring back metal detectors and resource officers temporarily?

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“The city councilors who are opposed to school police and metal detectors often say, ‘we just need more mental health help, more wraparound services,’ blah, blah, blah,” Searles said, clearly frustrated. Of course we do. But BPS must provide a more comprehensive solution to the immediate crisis of school violence.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.