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Advocates find three cities overuse arrests at schools

Report says most cases involve minor offenses

Schools in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield are relying too heavily on arresting misbehaving students, and students of color are being arrested at disproportionately high rates, according to a report being released Wednesday by two nonprofits.

In the majority of cases, students were arrested in incidents that escalated from swearing, failing to follow directions, banging on lockers, or throwing tantrums, rather than for a weapons or drug offense, according to the report, which examined more than 1,300 arrests over three school years.

The report was prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union and Citizens for Juvenile Justice, which advocates for changes in the juvenile justice system.


The organizations contend that arresting students as young as 11 for behavioral issues ultimately puts them at greater risk of quitting school.

“The trauma on a kid being put in handcuffs and dragged off to a police station can’t be understated,’’ said Lael Chester, executive director for Citizens for Juvenile Justice. “The collateral consequences can be huge.’’

Springfield had the highest rate of arrests during the 2009-10 school year, the last year examined in the report, with a rate of 9 arrests per 1,000 students. That was three times the rate of Boston and nearly five times the rate of Worcester, according to the report.

The report highlighted one positive finding: Arrests declined in all three districts over the three years examined. But the authors say the rates are still too high.

Lee McGuire, a spokesman for the Boston public schools, said he could offer only limited comment because the organizations refused to provide a copy of the report to school officials Tuesday, preventing them from verifying the data and examining the report’s methodology.

He did point out, however, that Boston schools had cut in half the number of arrests, from 464 during the 2007-08 school year, to 232 last year. The school system has about 56,000 students.


McGuire also noted that the School Committee adopted a new code of conduct last year that emphasizes conflict resolution and other preventive measures.

“The superintendent thinks zero arrests is the right rate,’’ McGuire said. “We are focused deliberately on strategies to get the number of arrests down, regardless of a student’s background.’’

Azell Cavaan, a spokeswoman for the Springfield public schools, said officials had not seen the report and declined to comment. Worcester officials could not be reached.

The report includes several recommendations, such as making arrest data public; removing officers from schools; and reducing arrests for minor offenses.

It also called on state and federal officials to investigate the disproportionate arrests of black students and students at so-called therapeutic schools.

In Boston, two-thirds of the arrests involved black students, according to the report, even though they make up about a third of the enrollment.

The groups spent nearly four years on the report and said they repeatedly met resistance from school and police officials in each city in obtaining the data, which cost about $8,000.

The ACLU went to court in Worcester to get data, and Boston officials refused to release police “narratives’’ about its arrests, making it difficult to determine the context in which they occurred, the report said.

Springfield is the only school district to use uniformed city police officers equipped with firearms in its schools. Worcester has no police officers in its schools, relying instead on security guards. The schools must call 911 to have a student arrested.


The Boston school district runs its own department of safety, which in June 2011, employed 78 officers, including 74 who are permanently stationed at 33 schools. Those officers wear uniforms but do not carry guns and can make arrests only on school grounds.

The Boston Police Department also dispatches 15 members of a school police unit to designated areas of the city. Those officers do carry guns, but wear plain clothes.

The report said it found no evidence that staffing schools with police officers made them safer.

But Boston officials disagreed, arguing that police play a crucial role in protecting students. For instance, McGuire said that on Monday, a school officer at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury confiscated a gun from a student who tried entering a side door that did not have a metal detector.

“We are proud of how our school police acted,’’ said McGuire, emphasizing that at no point were students at Madison Park in danger. “We think that is precisely the role school police should play.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.