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City agencies have shared information about Boston Public School students more than 100 times between 2014 and 2018 with a Boston intelligence-sharing network center that includes an agent from the Department of Homeland Security, according to documents released to The Boston Globe by the Lawyers for Civil Rights.
The documents, obtained through a lawsuit the civil rights organization and others filed against the city, contradict previous statements from school officials that data about students had been shared with federal authorities in only one instance.
On at least 104 occasions, “incident reports” involving students were released to a group known as the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC), according to a letter city officials wrote to the civil rights lawyers. It’s not clear from the documents who released the records to the BRIC.
BRIC is housed at the Police Department and is partially funded by Homeland Security; it is accessible to at least one of the department’s analysts.
In at least two cases, the school incident reports have been used by immigration authorities to make the case to deport students, according to their lawyers.
“BPS simply should not be sending any school incident reports to the BRIC,” said Janelle Dempsey, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights, which joined with several other groups to sue the city to determine the extent to which federal immigration authorities have access to school information about students. “Now we’re seeing that this practice is widespread.”
BPS changed its policy regarding the sharing of student incident reports in March 2018 after concerns were raised by civil rights groups. The bulk of the records are from 2015-2017.
When pressed about the policy, BPS director of communications Jessica Ridlen said “our school officers do not have any mechanism to share information with the BRIC.”
If information was shared with BRIC prior to 2018, it “was in cooperation with a criminal investigation or public safety concern,” Ridlen added.
Currently, she said, that only the chief of school police can share information with the Boston Police Department through a liaison.
Ridlen said district staff share incident reports with the Police Department to aid in criminal investigations “or if the incident contains information that . . . is useful to ensure the safety of the school, public, and the city’s neighborhoods.”
While the Police Department does not independently track individuals’ immigration status, Sergeant Detective John Boyle confirmed that an official from the Homeland Security’s Intelligence and Analysis division has access to BRIC. Homeland Security oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The Police Department “has never knowingly participated in an intentional procedure of sharing student information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement through the Boston Regional Intelligence Center,” Boyle said.
Spokesmen for the Department of Homeland Security and ICE did not respond to phone messages seeking their comment.
The civil rights group is still seeking more information from the government agencies. The documents released by the city to the civil rights groups include at least partial text of 46 of the shared incident reports.
According to the records released thus far, the school incident reports shared with BRIC range from reports of graffiti to alleged assault and battery. But the documents are heavily redacted and don’t include names, ages, race, and ethnicity — and, in some cases, much of the narrative explaining the incidents. It is not clear how many involved students who are immigrants.
The school incident reports can “lead to erroneous gang allegations that can have dire consequences in immigration court,” said Sarah Sherman-Stokes, associate director of the Immigrant Rights and Human Trafficking Clinic at Boston University Law School. Alleged gang activity can disqualify an immigrant for asylum and lead to deportation.
Boston Public Schools employs 75 police officers throughout the district. They are licensed by the Police Department but are paid and overseen by the school district. While federal privacy law prohibits public schools from sharing most student data, former superintendent Tommy Chang explained in a 2018 letter to staff that police incident reports are not considered student records. But he said police “are not sharing information on a student’s immigration status.”
In June 2018, in response to the lawsuit from the Center for Law and Education and other groups, Chang wrote that “BPS would never give student information to ICE, unless required under law.” He later acknowledged the district had shared information in a “specific case” to comply with requests from the Boston Police Department, the Massachusetts State Police, and other agencies investigating gang-related murders in East Boston.
Chang, who resigned in 2018 and now lives in Los Angeles, said that other than that one case, he was unaware of school incident reports ending up in BRIC.
“It is highly disappointing to find out it is that pervasive. [Schools] are not law enforcement,” Chang said in an interview.
In the Boston case, involving a Salvadoran teen studying at East Boston High School, the deportation documents included a school incident report describing his role in an altercation. Another student also accused him of gang involvement, according to his lawyer, Sarah Sherman-Stokes. He was deported in 2018.
Reports of schools sharing information with federal immigration authorities are relatively rare.
“We don’t know how widespread it is across the country,” said Dempsey. “If other cities have practices that look like Boston’s, that would be very, very concerning to students in this country.”
When in 2018 the Immigrant Legal Resource Center surveyed 71 immigration attorneys across 21 states and the District of Columbia, a majority said they’d seen an uptick in gang accusations against immigrants. But only seven reported seeing school information used as evidence for these cases in court.
The newly released documents show that school police officers based at East Boston High School, where 80 percent of students are Latino, wrote the bulk of the incident reports shared with BRIC.
Half of the 46 incident reports that have been released came from the school. Most were written by just two school officers stationed at East Boston High between 2015 and 2017. In at least six of the reports, the officers indicated they would share them with the BRIC.
Over the same period, East Boston experienced a spasm of violent crime, believed to be gang-related, involving young men originally from Central America. Sixteen alleged gang members were convicted of murder in the killing of two teenagers in East Boston in 2015 and 2016.
Six of the incident reports from East Boston describe officers stopping and frisking a student as they arrived or left school, without finding weapons. In addition to the East Boston student deported in 2018, at least one other student who attended the school currently faces deportation based on a case involving shared school incident reports, according to his attorney, Mary Holper.
BRIC officials attempted to use observations collected at the schools as “verification” of gang affiliation by the 20-year-old asylum applicant from El Salvador, according to BRIC and Boston School Police documents included in the court filings.
The documents, released by the former student’s attorney, suggest that East Boston High School police started tracking him in early 2017 with an “intelligence report” observing the then-17-year-old “hanging with younger MS13 associates during school hours and leaving together after dismissal.”
The young man was arrested in August 2018 because of the gang allegations, according to Holper. She said her client fled El Salvador in 2015 to escape gang persecution; Holper maintains that he’s never been involved in gang activities in the United States.
ICE did not respond to a request for comment about the case.
A Boston Teachers Union committee focused on immigrant rights has recently urged the district to share with law enforcement only school incident reports that involve serious bodily harm, for example, and not “routine disciplinary matters.”
Committee cochair Lena Papagiannis, a teacher at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury, said she worries what will happen if students become aware that their information could be shared with federal immigration enforcement.
“That will create a sense of mistrust in the school community,” she said.
Bianca Vázquez Toness is a member of the Globe staff working on The Great Divide project, which is partially funded by the Barr Foundation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.