Boston school police renew bid for right to carry pepper spray
Ask arbitrator to overturn decision to shelve policy
Boston school police have revived their push to carry pepper spray on the job, saying they must protect themselves and others from violence that spills onto school grounds.
The officers, who carry no weapons, say members of the force often lose time from work after sustaining injuries while subduing disorderly students or trespassers. They point out that an officer hit his head last month while arresting a student who brought a loaded gun into TechBoston Academy in Dorchester.
School police Sergeant Kirk Harrison said at least a half-dozen officers are currently out of work because of injuries incurred during arrests, including one who required shoulder surgery after a confrontation with a student.
"It could happen any day and every day," said Harrison, president of the union representing superior officers in the school police. "We deal with anything from just regular calls for breach of the peace, to talking to a student, to kids with firearms."
The 19 superior officers and 55 patrol officers of the school police work full time in 43 of the district's 125 schools, according to the School Department. The force has a $4.2 million budget.
The officers recently turned to an arbitrator in an attempt to overturn a decision last year by the former school superintendent, who quashed development of a policy for carrying pepper spray. After a meeting late last month, they are awaiting the arbitrator's decision.
School police are employees of the School Department but are licensed by the Boston Police Department, which also assigns to specific schools a smaller unit of officers from the main police force who carry guns, batons, and mace.
The primary responsibility of patrolling the halls falls on school police, who in recent years have recovered one to three guns and about 400 other weapons per year, including pellet guns, knives, and mace, according to the School Department. Officers carry only handcuffs and radios.
Since school began in September, school police have confiscated one gun — the one at TechBoston Academy — and about 110 other weapons.
Arrests by school police have declined sharply in recent years, from 464 in the 2007-08 school year to 232 in 2010-11 and 177 last year. But that number was up from 2013-14, when there were just 152 arrests. There have been 50 arrests this year.
"Anything that . . . happens in the streets always finds its ways into schools," said Officer Steven M. Wilson Jr., a 16-year veteran and president of the union representing school patrol officers.
Policies on police carrying weapons in schools vary from city to city and can depend on whether officers are employed directly by school districts or are municipal officers assigned to schools.
School police in Denver are armed, and those in Detroit carry pepper spray and .40-caliber pistols, according to officials in those cities. Officers who patrol schools in New York City are unarmed.
In Massachusetts, school police are authorized to have weapons in some urban districts, with Worcester and Springfield officers carrying guns, local officials said.
In 2006, the Boston School Department negotiated a contract allowing officers to carry pepper spray but requiring that officials first develop a policy for its use. That policy was never developed, although officers say many began informally carrying pepper spray and continued to do so until November 2014.
That month, Interim Superintendent John McDonough responded to public opposition and dropped an effort to develop a pepper spray policy, saying it could "drive a wedge between our students and the school police."
It is unclear whether Tommy Chang, the current superintendent, supports allowing officers to carry pepper spray. Through a spokesman, Chang declined to discuss the arbitration.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh signaled that he does not believe pepper spray is necessary.
"The safety of our students is our top priority, and while we look to foster a safe environment for learning, we rely heavily on equipping our school officers with active-shooter and 'safe-drill' training, as well as relationship-building skills and deescalation strategies, which are all closely tied to our community policing approach," Walsh said in a statement.
"Those are the most effective ways to reach young people," he added.
Contacted for comment, a spokesman for police Commissioner William B. Evans referred a reporter to the mayor's statement.
Parents expressed a willingness to keep an open mind about officers carrying pepper spray on school grounds but also concerns about how and when it might be used.
Barbara Rosa, former cochairwoman of the school district's Citywide Parent Council, said she would prefer officers carry pepper spray than a Taser or a gun, but she would want to see a policy in place that forbade the use of the spray on students.
"It [should be] reserved for a real crisis situation, such as a stranger coming into the building and acting really violently, just to defuse the situation," she said.
Odette Williamson, who has a daughter at Boston Latin Academy and a son at Joseph Lee K-8 School, said there should be another opportunity for parents to learn the facts and voice their concerns before any change is made.
"I can see many scenarios where this could go horribly wrong or be abused, and I just want to know what the safeguards are in place that it be used appropriately," Williamson said.
Lisa H. Thurau, executive director of Strategies for Youth, a national nonprofit based in Cambridge that works to improve interactions between police and young people, said weapons should be used on students only as a last resort.
"In school systems that permit extensive use of such tactics, we see abuse and . . . harm to youth," Thurau said. "There's no compelling reason to use it when so many effective alternatives are available."