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Number-crunching youth violence in Boston: Just how bad is it?

As Boston officials wrestle with the best ways to reduce youth violence, new data show more students are showing up at public schools with weapons and more police activity at schools in the city, including private institutions.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

As Boston officials wrestle with the best ways to reduce youth violence, new data show more students at public schools with weapons and more police activity at schools in the city, including private institutions.

High-profile instances of violence involving local teens in recent months have added fuel to the debate over whether police officers should return to campuses of Boston Public Schools after they were removed in 2021 following the state’s police reform law. While several public officials have proclaimed there has been a significant uptick in Boston’s youth violence, numbers provided by BPS and police tell a more complex story.

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As of the end of February, there had been 784 police incidents at Boston schools, including private institutions, which puts the city’s schools on pace to exceed the number in the previous school year, as well as the two academic years prior to the COVID pandemic, according to data from police.

Incidents involving weapons at the district’s campuses have jumped to 118 this school year, outpacing the 82 incidents recorded at this time a year ago, according to BPS statistics. Those incidents include assaults with weapons as well as instances where students were caught with weapons, including knives, but did not use them.

There have been a total of 1,627 incidents resulting in discipline across the system through February of this school year, which exceeds the 1,454 incidents through February of last school year. Neither year tops pre-COVID school years between 2018 and 2020.

Fights and assaults, however, have dipped slightly to 490, down from last year’s 505.

For its part, the district said it has been working to curb violence inside schools. There have been weekly safety meetings to address individual student cases, ongoing conversations with police to “clarify roles and responsibilities in emergency situations,” more training for school safety officers, and better communication with families.

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“Nothing is more important than the safety of our children,” district spokesperson Max Baker said in a statement.

“Students and staff deserve to come to physically and emotionally safe schools, and the best way to ensure safety is to build authentic relationships with our students,” Baker said. “These relationships allow BPS officials to see when students are struggling and to help them feel like they have a trusted adult they can turn to for support.”

But the statistics only tell a portion of the story, as a string of jarring violence involving teens in Boston has prompted calls for action.

In late January, for instance, an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old were charged in connection with a daytime triple stabbing at a Dorchester park near TechBoston Academy.

That same month, a Boston Latin Academy student was taken to the hospital after a fight among four middle school students.

In February, a student at South Boston’s Condon School was found to have a knife, and a girl at City on a Hill Charter School in Roxbury brandished a taser, meat cleaver, and small kitchen knife, reports said.

Most notably, in a late January slaying unrelated to Boston schools, 13-year-old Tyler Lawrence, who was living in Norwood, was killed while in Mattapan visiting his grandparents.

A memorial set up at the scene where 13-year-old Tyler Lawrence was shot on Jan. 29 near Babson and Fremont Streets in Boston.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Mayor Michelle Wu said this week that she has been following the youth violence numbers in the city closely, and acknowledged that, “There’s a certain set of metrics that shows we have work to do.”

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“We won’t be satisfied until we’ve eradicated violence from every part of our city,” she said.

Last year in Boston, 18 people under the age of 18 were shot. At the same time, 69 teens were arrested on assault-related charges involving a dangerous weapon and assault with intent to murder, though no minors in the city were charged with murder.

Amid a surge of young people arrested for carrying a gun last year, Wu launched a youth safety task force in partnership with the police and BPS to funnel resources directly to at-risk children and teenagers.

Experts cite an array of factors that contribute to youth violence: gang involvement, failures of education systems, lack of economic opportunities, public disinvestment in their neighborhoods, and racial segregation.

“One thing we know in general, youth who are exposed to neighborhood violence feel unsafe and change their behaviors accordingly,” said Jonathan Jay, a Boston University professor who researches community gun violence.

“It’s very hard to predict at the individual level whether someone is going to be a victim of violence or someone who uses violence but behaviors like carrying a weapon increase risk substantially,” he said.

Just as there are multiple drivers for youth violence, experts point to several potential solutions to reduce bloodshed: exhaustive outreach work with people who know the streets, creating spaces that foster community, generating more youth jobs, encouraging engagement with gang leadership, and even something as basic as increasing the number of green spaces in a neighborhood.

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“We must develop community strategies that ensure neighborhood safety while also building trust and encouraging healing,” Leon Smith, executive director for Boston-based Citizens for Juvenile Justice, said in an e-mail. “This cannot be done by police.”

Erika Gebo, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Suffolk University, agrees, adding that kicking children out of school “is not a solution at all.”

She said that when it comes to curbing youth violence, “We also need to address structural issues.” For instance, if parents are working two jobs to make rent, there may be a lack of supervision during crucial post-school hours when too much unstructured time can be detrimental to a child’s development.

“Kids need connection — relationships,” she said.

Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story misstated which educational institutions were on pace to exceed the number of police incidents. All city schools, including private institutions, are on pace to exceed the number in the previous school year.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story stated a school stabbing happened in 2023. The stabbing happened in 2022.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald. Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.