Interim Superintendent John McDonough announced Wednesday night that he was halting efforts to equip school police with pepper spray, saying it might “drive a wedge between our students and the school police.”
McDonough told the School Committee in his opening remarks that it became clear during forums held in recent weeks to develop a pepper-spray policy that students, parents, and other community members did not support the idea of equipping the system’s 75 school police officers with the chemical spray.
He also noted the number of student arrests has dropped dramatically in recent years, and that the district has taken other steps to bolster safety, such as installing key-card access to schools, upgrading cameras, and adopting new measures to prevent conflicts before they erupt.
“I think what we are hearing so far has persuaded me that pepper spray -- no matter how well-developed the policy and no matter how well-crafted the training, and no matter their good intention -- might serve to drive a wedge between our students and the school police who do a great job protecting them every day,” McDonough said.
Boston school police officers, who carry no weapons, have been pushing for pepper spray for years. They finally struck an agreement with the School Committee as part of their union contract more than seven years ago to carry it.
But the provision came with a hitch: the school police chief needed to first develop a policy on the use of the spray, which never happened.
Alfred Gordon, an attorney who represents school police supervisors, said the union “will take every potential legal action” to fulfill the contract language and protect its members. Those steps could include filing charges with the state Department of Labor Relations.
“The union has documented, over the last seven to 10 years, numerous incidents of students bringing deadly weapons into schools, and the only defense that the school police officers and supervisors have had at their disposal is their own two hands and their handcuffs,” Gordon said in a phone interview.
With a spate of school shootings nationwide, Gordon said, it is even more imperative for school police to have some level of protection.
The school system’s unarmed police force is unique, the Globe reported in 2012. The National Association of School Resource Officers in Alabama said at the time that most school officers around the country carry weapons.
Boston school police routinely patrol 46 school of the system’s approximately 128 schools. Since the 2007-08 school year, arrests have dropped from 464 to 152 last school year. But school police Chief Eric Weston told the School Committee Wednesday night that there has been a spike in arrests this fall, saying it was in the high 50s.
“The cycle is going back up,” he said.
Several School Committee members told McDonough they supported his decision to scuttle the use of pepper spray.
“It goes to show that BPS is working closely with students to make schools a better environment,” said Ayomide Olumuyiwa, the committee’s student representative, who attends the O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury.
McDonough’s announcement came hours after some City Councilors raised concerns at their meeting about giving school police pepper spray and voted to hold a hearing on the issue.
“It’s simply an absurd idea,” Councilor Matt O’Malley said before the vote.
Councilor Tito Jackson said using pepper spray would only escalate tense situations.
“I don’t know why we would even broach the issue,” he said.
Councilor Ayanna Pressley said she did not want the schools “to become a police state.”