BPS safety report suggests discussion on school police restoration

Skipper and Wu

Supt. Mary Skipper and Mayor Michelle Wu at a recent event. (Isabel Leon/Mayor's Office)

An independent report from the national Council of Great City Schools (CGCS) on safety in the Boston Public Schools (BPS) recommended forming a committee of stakeholders to discuss restoring school police. The report also suggested finalizing a long-awaited memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Boston Police Department (BPD) regarding how schools will be secured absent a school police force.

The report was commissioned by BPS to help improve safety and security at all facilities and schools. It is a report required by the state’s Systemic Improvement Plan for BPS and has been conducted over the last several months. Supt. Mary Skipper said the report will help them “map out strategies” to create safe learning environments for students.

“We are actively reviewing the potential risks identified within the report to map out strategies to reduce and eliminate those risks,” she said in a statement. “We also appreciate the CGCS's broad and deep knowledge of Emergency Management protocols as they do their work across 78 of the largest school districts. We look forward to implementing many of their recommendations in this area while we continue to pursue a holistic approach to student and wellbeing, which includes measures like bullying prevention programming, mental health awareness initiatives, restorative justice circles, and peer-to-peer mediation.”

Mayor Michelle Wu was not immediately available for comment due to her attendance of a conference of U.S. mayors in Washington, D.C.

The Boston Teachers Union (BTU) said recent incidents at BPS schools have concerned everyone.

“Unfortunately, similar to our neighborhoods, there have been several incidents recently that have caused significant distress and harm to individuals on or around BPS grounds,” read a statement from BTU. “The educators of the BTU are committed to doing everything we can to address the root causes of this violence and prevent incidents like these from occurring.”

One key recommendation calls for the formation of a group to talk about restoring a sworn BPS police force, something that was in place before July 1, 2021, when the former Boston School Police force was phased out through a decision by BPS in the wake of the state Police Reform Act. They were replaced by school safety officers with more limited powers and who are directed to call BPD for any major safety issues. The Boston School Police did not carry firearms or weapons during its existence but did have the power to arrest and to write police reports.

Since the dissolution, there has been a debate over whether police are needed in the schools. Some say frequent safety incidents are related to the shift while others say police in the schools criminalize children by creating an arrest record for minor offenses.

Out of eight recommendations, the one about school policing has drawn the most attention initially. That recommendation reads, “Create a focus group of appropriate stakeholders and administrators to consider if BPS should form an internal, sworn police department.”

Advocates for restoring the school police said the recommendation was a step in the right direction, but maybe didn’t go far enough.

“We have come out for some time in favor of school police going back in schools, so a recommendation that moves us in that direction is better than nothing,” said Rev. David Searles, who is part of the grassroots “Boston SOS” school safety group. “If it moves us there and we can get there, then that’s good, but I don’t know if the recommendation goes far enough…The puzzle is we just had that exact sworn school police force two years ago and got rid of it so I’m wondering how long the discussion will be.”

Councillor At-Large Erin Murphy has been outspoken on school safety, and recently signed a letter with a handful of colleagues asking for better safety measures – that letter coming after a teacher was allegedly knocked unconscious by a student in front of Mattapan’s Young Achiever’s School while providing a safety escort for another student.

“Nothing in the report surprised me and I’m not sure why we had to pay an outside group to tell us what the DESE report already told us and what the data from BPS tells us, if they were willing to share it,” she said.

“To me it is also refreshing in a way to see that a national organization did the study and found out there is a concern, safety is not the utmost priority of the schools, and the system is not operating in a way now to ensure all students and staff are safe,” she added. “We need to continue the conversation.”

BTU disagrees with that sentiment and notes they have long been against police in schools and, instead, have called to invest school police budgets into social and emotional well-being programs.

They noted a 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that found one in four students is in a school with a police officer but no counselor, nurse, school psychologist, or social worker.

“Three years ago, BTU members passed a resolution calling for Boston Public Schools to invest more in mental health services and restorative justice practices – proven methods that reduce violence and disruptive behavior – including through the redirection of some funds previously allocated to Boston School Police,” the BTU statement said. “We still believe this to be among the just, anti-racist ways to address violence in our communities…This is consistent with research on what is effective in preventing safety issues, and this is why we continue to advocate for those research-based solutions when it comes to school safety.”

A recommendation Murphy and others highlighted was the long-standing need to complete an MOU between the schools and the BPD so that roles and expectations are defined. That MOU was to be enacted following the end of the Boston School Police in 2021, but never got completed.

“If police are included from the beginning of a situation, they wouldn’t feel locked out of this process,” she said. “The MOU needs to be finished.”

Added Searles of Boston SOS: “It seems to me the schools don’t want to communicate with the police so not having this MOU completed is just a reason not to share information or speak with them.”

One “key finding” cited in the report was that in 2021 when BPS was hiring school safety officers under the new format, it took too long to get the hiring done. That has led to understaffing at schools across the district.

“The time to select and onboard candidates for security positions was too long. As a result, candidates found other opportunities while waiting for a hiring decision by BPS,” read the finding.

Consequently, one of the recommendations is to place hiring duties under the BPS Security Services offices rather than under the general human resources offices.

Another “key finding” said the school safety officers that were hired never got to train adequately, according to the report, because they were too busy handling safety issues in the schools.

“Campus staff reported having to spend more time addressing safety concerns in the school, which took away the time they spent in the classroom (e.g., the change in role from police officer to safety specialist),” read the finding.

The six other recommendations in the report were as follows:

•Require BPS Security Services to be more involved with the hiring process to help reduce the time it takes to select and onboard candidates.

•Mandate that law enforcement records reside under the management and supervision of Safety Services.

•Acquire an anonymous reporting system hotline or software product to encourage the reporting of inappropriate and anticipated dangerous behaviors.

•Address low morale issues in the Safety Services department by encouraging team building and professional development opportunities.

•Prioritize roles and responsibilities in all department units to ensure that personnel focus on school-based safety and policing practices, not duties customarily associated with municipal or county policing functions. Recruit or promote mid-level management who will champion school-based policing approaches.

•Partner with the Human Resources to: Monitor turnover rates, establish exit interview protocols for department employees who voluntarily separate from BPS, and identify and track the causes for leaving to identify opportunities to make or recommend changes in policy; revisit, rewrite, update, and distribute job descriptions to reflect current roles and responsibilities to ensure accountability and performance; invite the communications and human resources departments to plan and staff ongoing recruitment opportunities and leverage mass communication and social media approaches so the district can successfully fill current vacancies.

The report was presented by CGCS staffers Ray Hart and Willie Burroughs to the School Committee at its regular meeting on Jan. 18, though part of the report was discussed in executive session. While the report talked about safety in the schools, it also investigated the security of the school facilities. School officials said their legal team advised keeping school facility vulnerabilities out of public discussion to preserve safety.

“The Council’s report identifies safety vulnerabilities in school buildings and recommendations to eliminate such vulnerabilities,” read a statement from BPS to the media. “However, given the enormous safety risk that publicly disclosing any school building vulnerability would pose to our students and staff, in consultation with BPS’ Legal Advisor, the District will review the report and determine what portions may be publicly released in a redacted version to ensure that student and staff safety is not jeopardized.”

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