Boston Public Schools should consider in-house police force
Police officers were removed from Boston’s schools in 2021. A new recommendation could bring them back.
Amid simmering debate over police officers’ presence in schools, an outside consultant is recommending that Boston Public Schools look into creating its own police department.
The recommendation from the Council of Great City Schools came as part of a state-mandated systemic improvement plan, following an audit that highlighted the district’s lackluster response to longstanding challenges.
CGCS shared its recommendations on student and staff safety with the School Committee last Wednesday, advising that the district create a focus group of stakeholders and administrators to consider whether BPS should form an internal, sworn police department. Police were removed from Boston schools in the summer of 2021 and replaced with safety specialists who lacked arrest powers, uniforms, or handcuffs, according to The Boston Globe.
Other recommendations included speeding up the time it takes to recruit safety specialists, establishing an anonymous safety hotline, and reaching an agreement with the Boston Police Department on sharing information between BPS and police.
“This report is going to help us as we continue to improve our efforts to ensure the safety of all students and staff,” Superintendent Mary Skipper said. “We’re committed to doing everything we can to learn from the report, to create a safe learning environment for our students.”
She said CGCS was “commissioned to provide a high-level management view of the district’s student and staff safety operations,” but noted that the report does not discuss in detail safety strategies such as restorative justice, school counseling, or wraparound supports, which she described as “critical” to the district’s holistic safety.
Findings regarding the district’s emergency management will be discussed during a later executive session to avoid exposing security vulnerabilities, school officials explained.
Does school-based policing work?
In-house school police forces are more common in some parts of the U.S. In Texas, for example, 309 school districts have their own internal police departments, according to The Texas Tribune. Nearly 100 Texas school districts have added their own police departments since 2017, the news outlet reported.
However, an internal police department is no guarantee that a school district will be safer; in Uvalde last year, officers stood by for more than an hour as a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers on May 24. The entire school police department was later suspended, Texas Public Radio reported.
Morgan Craven, national director of policy, advocacy and community engagement with the nonprofit Intercultural Development Research Association, told The Texas Tribune that police presence in schools can lead to more disciplinary action against marginalized students.
“Consistently, it does not show that safety increases,” she told The Texas Tribune. “There’s some research that shows that there’s a neutral effect, and then there’s some research that shows that concerns about safety actually increase with the presence of school-based police officers.”
A 2018 report from education research non-profit WestEd found that “there is currently very little rigorous evaluative research on the effects — in terms of school safety — of having a police presence in schools,” though the existing evidence to date “fails to support a school safety effect.”
In 2020, the ACLU of Florida looked at school policing in the Sunshine State, which passed a law requiring officers to be stationed at all public schools following the 2018 Parkland school shooting.
“There was little consistent evidence that the presence of law enforcement decreased the number of behavioral incidents occurring, indicating that school-based law enforcement were not necessarily making schools safer,” the resulting report found.
A report from the University of Florida Education Policy Research Center, also from 2020, found that the use of law enforcement in schools may actually compromise student well-being without increasing school safety.
Mixed public opinion
The CGCS recommendations came just weeks after four city councilors wrote to Mayor Michelle Wu, calling in part for the return of police officers in schools.
“There have been many disturbing incidents at our schools, and on our school buses this school year,” they wrote. “Stabbings, gun shots, bullying, physical attacks, loaded guns and sexual assaults have been happening across the City.”
Earlier last week, a group of organizations including Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the Boston Teachers Union published a statement calling the councilors’ proposed strategies ineffective and asserting they would only “further criminalize and traumatize Black and brown children.”
Speaking to WBZ, Benilde Barros, a senior at Jeremiah E. Burke High School — where one student was stabbed in September and another was shot in October — opposed returning police to schools.
“That’s going to make students feel terrified and targeted,” Barros said.
Ray Hart, CGCS executive director, was careful to note that the consultants are only recommending that BPS have a conversation about forming an in-house police force.
“Several of our districts have recently transitioned to their own internal police departments,” he said, citing Atlanta Public Schools as an example. “It is not necessarily something that is appropriate for Boston Public Schools. It is not something that we are recommending that you absolutely do.”
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