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Boston Public Schools nearing agreement with city police to formalize relationship

A police vehicle passed the Henderson K-12 Inclusion School in the Dorchester neighborhood of BostonCraig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

Boston police and school leaders said Friday that they are close to concluding an agreement formalizing their relationship and outlining when school staff should call police.

The memorandum will not place police back in schools, the officials said, but instead will clarify when educators should call police to respond to incidents. The move to codify the role of police in schools is in line with a January recommendation by an outside consultant, the Council of Great City Schools, but has followed relatively little public discussion, despite the consultant’s recommendation that the agreement include community input.

Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper and Police Commissioner Michael Cox shared the update in testimony at a City Council hearing held by Councilors Erin Murphy and Michael Flaherty, who have called for more action to address school violence.

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The agreement has been in the works for almost two years, Skipper said, but the consultant’s recommendation spurred the parties to complete it.

Skipper emphasized that the agreement will not change city and district policies around information sharing and surveillance, such as a 2021 ordinance prohibiting school officials from including information like immigration status and gang affiliation in student reports that are shared with police.

Flaherty welcomed the coming agreement and said that he has heard from parents that school leaders were not calling 911, forcing parents to go to the police themselves. In January, Murphy, Flaherty, Councilor Frank Baker, and council President Ed Flynn called for a restoration of police to schools and for the installation of metal detectors.

Three-quarters of district parents surveyed in a recent MassINC/Shah Foundation poll supported those measures. Under the current policy, individual schools decide whether to install metal detectors; some schools already have them.

Boston Public Schools stopped employing police officers in response to the state’s 2020 Police Reform Law that required school officers receive about 350 additional hours of training. Rather than provide the training, then-Superintendent Brenda Cassellius opted to replace the police with “safety specialists” who lack arrest powers, uniforms, and handcuffs.

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The Council of Great City Schools report found that the 2020 law resulted in confusion among BPS staff around the responsibilities of the district versus those of the police.

Many public commenters at the meeting said they opposed any further police involvement. They called for alternative ways to keep students safe, such as bringing in more social workers and expanding restorative justice practices.

“Going to school should not look and feel like you are entering the criminal justice system,” said Jakira Rogers of Massachusetts Advocates for Children.

“There’s an urgent need to ensure that Boston Public Schools has enhanced safety strategies and measures that keep all students safe from both physical and psychological harm,” Rogers said. “Research, data, and disparities demonstrate that police in schools and metal detectors are ineffective and are simply illusions for safety.”

Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson said that she supports the memorandum as an alternative to bringing back school police.

“Research shows that we don’t need policing in schools, and I definitely support not having police in schools,” Fernandes Anderson said. “So I’m in total support of your current efforts.”

BPS staff, like educators around the country, have reported more behavioral problems in the wake of the pandemic, and proponents of school police point to a series of high-profile incidents involving youth violence, but school district data does not show a rise in school violence.

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Police data showed an increase in juvenile weapons arrests last year and an increase in police incidents at all Boston schools, including private institutions, through February of this year.

In early January, police said, a teacher used her body to shield a student from attack outside Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot School. Later that month, a fight among four Boston Latin Academy middle school students led to one being taken to the hospital. In February, a knife was confiscated from a Condon School middle school student.

School discipline data, however, paints a much more mixed picture. The Globe reported in March that there were 1,627 incidents resulting in discipline across the system through February of this school year, compared to 1,454 incidents in the same period last school year. Both years’ totals were below those in each of the three years before the pandemic.

Fights and assaults resulting in discipline this school year dipped slightly to 490 between September and February, down from 505 during the corresponding period last year. Incidents involving weapons resulting in discipline, however, jumped to 118 during the same period this school year, a marked increase over 82 the previous year, according to BPS statistics.

The district’s efforts to work more closely with city police have drawn an outcry from juvenile justice advocates, who say an increase in the police presence in schools would run contrary to the district’s stated commitment to equity. A 2021 analysis from the Center for Public Integrity found Black and Latino students and students with disability are referred to school police at higher rates than their peers. Advocates have also opposed information sharing between police and schools, warning about a 2017 incident where a school incident report helped trigger a student’s deportation.

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Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.