Equity in Education: The push to keep local schools safe amid nationwide spike in violence

BOSTON — It’s a dangerous trend we’ve been reporting on the entire school year.

A 7-year-old brings a loaded gun to a Dorchester elementary school, students jump a classmate and teacher outside of a pilot school in Mattapan, and just last week a teacher is involved in a fight with students and staff watching at an elementary school.

Now, Boston City Councilors are calling for action. Four are pushing for stiffer security measures including metal detectors and school safety officers.

Incidents of school violence have increased by more than 185% nationwide. Roughly 800 police-involved incidents have been reported as of the end of February. Students, like Jerome Wells, tells Crystal Haynes guns are a common sight in Boston schools.

“Where I see the most, it’s in the bathroom,” says Wells. “a lot of the kids is flashing they guns or they knives or pockets. you know, it’s just how you go to school to learn, you know, and it’s nice to be in a safe environment. I shouldn’t have to worry about if I go into this bathroom who’s in here.”

D’andre Vars says he carried pepper spray for protection walking to school and used evasive measures to protect him inside the building.

“So there have been times where I and another gay friend have gone to the bathroom and we’ve been called slurs while exiting or entering the bathroom,” says Vars. “so it got to the point where I just have a key to the staff bathroom.”

In January, four Boston City Councilors published a letter calling on BPS to add police officers inside schools and for “non-invasive technology such as metal detectors” to be reinstated across the district. Councilor Erin Murphy says staff are discouraged from calling police and bps has failed to release regular information on incidents of school violence.

“I would say 98, if not more percent of the time, the school resource officers, the guidance counselors, the principal, the classroom teacher themselves can handle, you know, the behaviors and the culture at the school,” says Murphy. “but when something does happen, when we know nationally, I feel like we need to be safe than sorry.”

An April MasIinc poll shows three out of four parents agree.

“Let’s not go with this sizzle of what sounds good. let’s go with the steak of what actually will get our young people better and will actually make our school safer,” opponents like Leon Smith, call metal detectors “theater” and police presence in school harmful.

Smith says, “It’s perplexing that metal detectors are being pushed so hard as a solution to issues around school safety because there is a substantial body of research which establishes that they don’t make schools less violent and they don’t make schools safer.”

Citizens for Juvenile Justice recently released a report compiling state and federal data showing there is little to no evidence that metal detectors work but significant evidence that their presence made students feel less safe.

Federal data shows schools with most students of color are 18 times more likely to have increased security measures like police officers and metal detectors. Black and Latino/students are three to five times more likely to pass through a metal detector than their white counterparts.

“What you’re making these students internalize is that this space isn’t the sacred space of learning. it’s a space that prepares you for court and prison. that’s what a black student told me and has testified actually in multiple different hearings,” says Iman Hassan, an education attorney with the Massachusetts Communities Action Network. She says other factors are more important when it comes to student safety.

“The rate of the teacher to student, the rate of paraprofessional properly servicing IEPs, having mental health practitioners that actually can give appropriate counseling and meaningful interactions with students is key.”

At a public hearing last Friday, Superintendent Mary Skipper and Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox said they are close to finishing an agreement - years in the making - formalizing a relationship between schools and the police department.

They say the agreement won’t put officers back in schools but it will clarify when staff should call police.

“I think what has been missing is a consistent framework in our schools and consistent training,” said Skipper. “One of these things doesn’t solve all of the issues. it might solve a slice.”

Police were taken out of the Boston schools in the summer of 2021 and replaced with “safety specialists” who lack the authority to arrest or handcuff students. A memorandum of understanding between bps and the BPD has been in the works for more than two years.

All sides in this debate say it needs to be a priority.

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