Grass-roots group wants better safety plan from BPS; sees receivership as a good tool

Rev. David Searles, pictured here at a Peace Walk three years ago, has helped to form the new grassroots BostonSOS (Safety in Our Schools) group.

There has been a consistent and steady drumbeat over the last few months from the Boston SOS (Safety in Our Schools) group, and that has simply been for the city to come up with a plan that will keep the public schools free of guns.

As of this week, organizers in the group said, their calls have only been returned with silence.

With reports coming out more frequently about assaults, violence, and aggressive bullying incidents in the Boston Public Schools (BPS), and with some elected officials contending that official reports are not reflecting accurate counts of incidents, BostonSOS points to all of that – and the eight reported incidents of guns being found in the schools this year – as evidence that serious action is needed.

Noting the silence from official Boston, the group’s leader, Rev. David Searles of East Boston, said in a recent interview with the Reporter that they are looking at state receivership for BPS as a potential ally for their cause.

“The evidence is mounting each week of the dangerous situation the children and youth are facing in schools throughout the city of Boston,” said Searles. “As a member of the clergy, I’m a mandated reporter – a process known as a 51A. I can’t ‘51A’ the entire BPS as they told me there is no mechanism for that. That’s when we began to look at state receivership and maybe that’s our 51A mechanism here for school safety…(BPS) has proven to be irresponsible and maybe we need the state to take over.”

Searles added that the eight gun incidents doesn’t touch on other bad behaviors that concern parents. Those include the numbers of assaults reported; students rallying this month at Boston Arts Academy (BAA) for safety; the shooting of a teacher and student outside TechBoston Academy; and the alleged violent incident that took place at the Henderson Upper School last fall; and others that show up weekly only on videos posted to social media sites.

Parents within BostonSOS frequently don’t know where else to turn, said Searles.

Christine Jean, a Dorchester resident whose granddaughter attends a BPS program, said the safety situation is a top concern for her. “I am terrified to hear what is going on in Boston schools,” she said. “The mayor needs to provide a safety plan to keep guns out of schools.”

Councillor Erin Murphy of Dorchester, who has been looking closely at school safety all year, told the Reporter this week that there needs to be clear policies about discipline and the Code of Conduct. For many students, families and teachers, the situation can be confusing.

“I’m hearing from a lot of parents that their kids don’t use the bathroom at school because they don’t feel it’s safe, or else they just don’t want to go to school,” she said. “To just ignore the problem or act like it doesn’t happen confuses parents and students.

“They wonder why a student is back in class and why they didn’t get in trouble and what behavior is okay and isn’t. It’s no longer like ‘What if someone gets hurt.’ People are getting hurt.”

BostonSOS formed from the weekly meetings at Dorchester’s Ella Baker House, where for years providers, community organizations, clergy, and law enforcement have convened to discuss incidents from all over the city. Their focus is on how to provide early interventions and shine a light on street violence.

Searles said he has attended those meetings for some time, and increasingly over the last 12 months, he began to hear of more and more incidents of school violence. When he returned to East Boston, he also heard worried parents – both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking – who weren’t being heard and didn’t know what to do.

“After hearing it week after week, some of us began to organize around school safety, particularly because it wasn’t coming up on anyone else’s radar screen,” he said.

A backdrop issue to their push was the reorganization of the Boston School Police last summer, which changed the focus of that force and took away its enforcement powers. They are now called Safety Officers and operate out of the BPS Department of Safety Services. The change was prompted by the 2020 Police Reform Act passed by the state, but BPS in particular chose not to certify its School Police under the new law and instead transformed them into safety officers. Police responses to schools now come from the Boston Police Department (BPD), though safety officers can assist.

Searles said things like the School Police and metal detectors have routinely come up as options for their group. He contended the BAA rally earlier this month in Fields Corner is a snapshot of things going on across the city.

He said that “getting rid of the School Police and the safety mechanisms in the schools becomes an ideology for a lot of people, and there’s no other solution they offer to keep guns out of the schools. ...We can’t afford rhetoric; we want results.”

Searles feels the ‘School to Prison Pipeline’ argument, which is cited often as a concern when it comes to discipline and School Police presence, needs to be studied more carefully.

“In Boston, it becomes ‘We don’t want to encourage these kids going to prison and so everyone else suffers because of it.’”
As a starting point, BostonSOS wants to meet with Mayor Wu to address guns in schools. Beyond that, they have had discussions with a few city councillors about metal detectors. Those discussions didn’t go well, Searles said.

“I feel it’s the height of political privilege for someone who goes to an office – that being City Hall – that is protected by a set of metal detectors and then turns around and says they won’t offer the same protection for children,” he said.

Searles said his group would like to see a plan from Wu that implements early interventions, including School Police, and community-based support services – while also leaning on appropriate disciplinary consequences for bad behaviors.

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