Last month, the Rev. David Searles was invited to speak before a group of nearly 80 young people enrolled in a summer program organized by Inspiring Today’s Youth, a gang and violence intervention group. Searles, an East Boston pastor, was there to talk about Boston SOS (Safety of Our Schools,) a community-based organization he founded last year to raise awareness about what he and the organization’s members and stakeholders call a school safety crisis.
At the meeting, which took place in Grove Hall in Dorchester, Searles said he asked those gathered: “‘How many of you go to Boston Public Schools?’ About two thirds raise their hands. Then I said, ‘How many of you who go to BPS believe that there are weapons going into the schools?’” Almost all of them raised their hands, Searles said, or roughly 40 teens.
And yet, Searles rightly wonders why the topic of school safety has not been elevated in the current City Council races. “The question is, what do you propose to make the schools safe?” What Searles means is, should the district bring school resource officers — and their arrest powers — back to Boston schools? What about metal detectors? Boston SOS supports both.
It’s hard not to see why. A series of MassINC polls conducted in six waves in the past 12 months or so found that 68 percent of BPS parents are very or somewhat concerned about their children’s physical safety while at school. The survey found that a majority of parents support both metal detectors (76 percent) and having school resource officers (75 percent) in BPS schools.
Rosa Torres is already worried about the issue. In an interview, the 53-year-old immigrant from El Salvador told me about her 13-year-old daughter, who’s an incoming 8th-grader at East Boston High School. During the spring, Torres’s daughter was assaulted by two young girls after school dismissal in a street near the high school. The attack was caught on video and witnessed by a small crowd of fellow students, some of whom posted the recording on social media.
I saw two recordings of the assault, which is chilling for its level of casual violence. Torres’s daughter is seen crossing a street as a group of students follows her. “I want to smash her,” a girl says off-camera; another voice seemingly encourages one of the alleged assailants to go after Torres’s daughter: “Go, go, do it!” A girl pushes Torres’s daughter, who tells her “don’t [expletive] touch me.” Torres’s daughter walks away, but the group keeps following and taunting her until a second girl pulls her by the hair, then repeatedly punches her in the head. Another girl joins and starts hitting Torres’s daughter and pulling her hair. The clip is nearly 2 two minutes long. Most of the youth seen on camera are wearing blue sweatshirts with the high school’s insignia.
Torres’s mom said the two young girls who allegedly assaulted her daughter had been threatening to do so, which is why the girl went to a teacher a couple of days before the incident. And yet, Torres said her daughter’s complaints were dismissed.
“If the teacher had called me to tell me about the threats, I would have been picking her up from school myself,” Torres said. “Now I keep telling her, if something happens, text me immediately. I don’t trust that the school is going to respond adequately.”
In May, the Boston City Council held a hearing about school safety. BPS Superintendent Mary Skipper and Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox said they were close to finishing a memorandum of understanding that would clarify protocols and procedures of cooperation, such as when school staff should call 911. Max Baker, a BPS spokesperson, confirmed that the agreement has not been finalized yet, and that currently there are 20 schools with metal detectors.
For Searles, it’s a matter of accountability as well, given that 40 percent of the city’s budget goes to public education, he said. “When a kid is bringing a loaded gun into a school, what are you going to do?”
Boston families deserve answers — and soon. Having “adults in schools dedicated to school safety,” as Mayor Michelle Wu put it in an interview with the Dorchester Reporter, doesn’t mean much if they don’t have any real authority to deter violent behavior. It doesn’t mean officers will always use their arrest powers, but they are nonetheless needed as a deterrent, much like metal detectors.