By Asia Foland
Contaminated rooms, unbearable class temperatures, and… metal detectors? Boston Public Schools are still working to meet students’ needs. Police are not going to help.
In June of 2022, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, former BPS superintendent Brenda Cassellius, chair of the Boston School Committee Jeri Robinson, and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeff Riley signed the “Systemic Improvement Plan” (SIP) targeting the district’s most urgent problems: among them late buses, failures to equitably serve students with disabilities, and deteriorating facilities.
Last month during a state education board meeting, DESE commissioner Riley called Boston’s progress on implementing this plan “incomplete” (2). He noted empty staff positions across the district, including leaders for the multilingual education office, a “coordinator of problem resolution” to address school safety and parent concerns, and senior staffers for special education (2,3).
More than half of Boston’s schools were built before World War II and since 2007, only four projects for new renovations and schools – out of three dozen – have been approved (1). And BPS has not yet renovated school bathroom facilities throughout the city, despite pledging to do so under the SIP (2). The consequences of this disrepair are well-known: oppressively hot classroom temperatures, crumbling walls and ceilings, and exposure to environmental contaminants.
And yet, amid BPS’s mounting public and legal obligations, how have certain Boston leaders responded?
With calls for police.
Though BPS removed police from schools in 2021, four Boston city councilors published a public letter this past January urging Mayor Wu to reinstate police and metal detectors in schools (4). In their letter, the city counselors — Erin Murphy, Michael Flaherty, Ed Flynn, and Frank Baker — declared the need for these security measures despite acknowledging the public’s “differing opinions” surrounding their use.
But this isn’t a matter of “differing opinions.”
Visible and physical security measures in schools have been overwhelmingly discredited. According to a report by Citizens for Juvenile Justice, an analysis of 15 years of metal detectors in schools came up with “insufficient evidence that their use decreased crime or violence in schools,” instead finding “their presence made students feel less safe” (5).
Yet in their letter, Boston City Councilors labeled metal detectors “non-invasive.” This is far from reality: for those forced to walk through them every morning before they can learn, metal detectors are invasive – physically and psychologically. And when we make our schools feel like prisons, our children feel less secure.
Police presence also has no positive impact on school safety outcomes, according to a meta-analysis of 12 studies done by the WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center (6). Instead, Black and brown students are disproportionately targeted within their schools, specifically for low-level offenses that in no way require law enforcement (7). In a district where students of color make up 85% of student enrollment, placing police in schools would detrimentally diminish an encouraging learning environment.
But there is another path Boston can take. Evidence-based approaches, centered around restorative justice and preventive measures, have been proven to reduce student arrests and foster a safe learning space. These include conflict resolution, personal reflection, community reconciliation, and more. And they’re not a new phenomenon: when Denver Public Schools implemented restorative practices in 2011, suspension rates decreased by 44% (8).
These strategies would relieve our city councilors’ safety concerns by identifying the underlying causes of conflict instead of their visible outcomes. As Leon Smith, Executive Director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, remarked, “It would be unfortunate to see Boston move in a regressive way, doubling down on approaches that research shows are not effective rather than shifting resources to approaches shown to both address student need and improve school safety and climate” (9).
Fundamentally, not only does law enforcement ineffectively ensure school safety compared to restorative action, but it also fails to address the urgent dangers posed by Boston’s declining facilities. Police officers cannot protect students from exposure to asbestos or lead in the neglected buildings they patrol. Police officers cannot ventilate classrooms or keep them within tolerable temperatures. Students deserve real safety at school – not just the illusion of it. And with such blatant neglect on display, it would be outrageous to funnel crucial funding and resources toward failed law enforcement measures.
To their credit, Boston has made recent progress in meeting their students’ needs. But that does not mean we cannot hold them accountable. This moment is crucial for Boston Public Schools, and we must be diligent. Using reactionary force does not ensure student safety in schools. And when the district is still struggling to serve all students, allocating time and resources toward ineffective discipline would only set them back. It’s time for Boston leaders to expand their definition of school safety and support investments that genuinely address our students’ needs.
- Massachusetts spends thousands more on school construction aid for white students than for students of color, https://www.bostonglobe.com/2023/05/27/metro/massachusetts-school-construction-aid/
- One year into school improvement plan, state official grades Boston’s progress ‘incomplete’: https://www.wbur.org/news/2023/06/27/boston-school-improvement-plan-one-year-later-progress-update
- Another year, another incomplete grade for Boston Public Schools: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2023/07/06/opinion/boston-public-schools-jeff-riley-blistering-criticism/
- Mowen, Thomas and Freng, Adrienne. “Is More Necessarily Better? School Security and Perceptions of Safety among Students and Parents in the United States”. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7205221/
- Stern, A., & Petrosino, A. (2018). What do we know about the effects of school-based law enforcement on school safety? San Francisco, CA: WestEd. https://www.wested.org/ resources/effects-of-school-based-law-enforcement-on-school-safety
- Thurau, L. and Wald, J. Controlling Partners: When Law Enforcement Meets Discipline in Public Schools, 54 N.Y.L. Sch. L. Rev. 977 (2009-2010). https://digitalcommons.nyls.edu/ nyls_law_review/vol54/iss4/5/
- Cregor, Matt and Damon T. Hewitt. “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Survey from the Field.” (2011).
- Boston Public Schools quietly negotiating with city police to formalize relationship: https://www.bostonglobe.com/2023/02/16/metro/boston-public-schools-quietly-negotiating-with-city-police-formalize-relationship/
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