DIRECT from the FIFTH FLOOR: Mayor Wu talks about police role in school safety

Mayor Wu said she has “not heard a strong need from school leaders and young people to have” Boston Police, or the former Boston School Police, posted in schools. Seth Daniel photo

Mayor Michelle Wu sat down for a wide-ranging interview with the Reporter in her City Hall office this week as she prepares to launch a multi-week tour of neighborhood parks, beginning in Fields Corner’s Town Field on Fri., May 12, at 10 a.m. The Reporter will publish a series of articles based on our conversation with her. We begin with her thoughts on safety concerns in the city’s public schools and on how, or whether, to deploy police in school buildings.

A poll published by MassINC Polling Group earlier this month suggests that 75 percent of parents with children in the Boston Public Schools (BPS) favor a police presence and metal detectors in school buildings – with the strongest support coming from parents of color who were surveyed.

The question is a timely one as BPS and the Boston Police Department are negotiating a memorandum of understanding that will formalize how city law enforcement responds to school incidents. Since 2021, BPS safety officers cannot make arrests or carry handcuffs. Instead, Boston Police are called to school buildings as needed.

On Monday, Mayor Wu told Reporter editors that her administration has “not heard a strong need from school leaders and young people to have” Boston Police, or the former Boston School Police, posted in schools.

“What I have heard loud and clear,” she said, “is that one: we need staff members who are there focused on security and safety who are supported and well trained, and two: we need Boston Police and BPS to have clear channels of communication and understanding about what the protocols are for any type of situation. And we need mental health services across the board to be accessible not only for young people, but also for families.”

Mayor Wu sat down with Reporter editors for a wide-ranging interview that covered safety in public schools, a broader return to in-person public meetings, and piping plovers in South Boston, among other topics. Seth Daniel photos

Wu took note of the poll’s results, but said it is important to understand how questions about school police are phrased in surveys. She said there can be a lot of “misinformation” about what the term “school police” means.

“The question is understood as: Do you believe there should be adults in schools dedicated to school safety? That is a very different question than the actual technical understanding of what the term ‘school police’ means and what Boston’s history has been on that,” she said. “We have not had armed police officers stationed inside our school buildings in decades at this point.”

The mayor said that many of the same individuals who were part of the old Boston School Police force are still in buildings working now as School Safety Officers and building strong relationships with the students.

“They no longer have handcuffs and can no longer make arrests, but there’s a very close relationship with Boston Public Schools and Boston Police in terms of when there is an incident that would require arrests or a more intensive public safety response,” she said.

“BPD has, and will continue to respond directly, and so we are very much committed to having adult staff who are focused on school safety within our schools.”

Wu added that the memo understanding with the Boston Police is in draft form and is “almost there” and noted that most high schools in the BPS system already have metal detectors positioned at entrances.

Rev. David Searles of the grass-roots Boston Safety in Our Schools (SOS) group, which advocates for metal detectors and a return to a school police presence, believe the MassINC poll shows his group is in step with BPS parents.

“I haven’t had a conversation with a parent regarding school safety where they are against our proposals, which include a return to school policing like we had prior to police reform,” he said. “To me, that polling data would be consistent with what I’m hearing from parents across the board – including people of color who were very sharply in favor.

“Teachers are concerned about their own safety but are not able to speak out about the policies,” he said.

In that regard, Wu said in Monday’s interview that “the best thing that we can do for school safety is to ensure that every young person has many trusted adults that have strong relationships within school as possible. In fact, for every incident that might get reported as something happening, when you really debrief about what happened, our staff members are doing so much in addition to just teaching.”

A key focus she identified as effective is building on a model that includes the whole family, including parents, students, and siblings, when situations arise.

“Some of the family members of our students have been involved in pretty serious situations, whether it was frustration that then led to assaulting a bus driver or a school staff member,” she said. “The scale of the number of these types of incidents related to family members is quite significant, and compared to pre-pandemic, that has been a big change, more so than with the students and young people themselves.”

Wu said that officials see that development as a call for better support services, with the understanding that the lack of them likely led to school incidents. She noted that one thing that BPS has instituted for overall school community safety and health is the Community Coordinators program. “They’ve had a tremendous response” to these job openings,” she said, with “several hundred applicants.”

Searles of SOS applauded the mayor’s “whole family” concept of responding to school safety issues but he would like to see all forms of safety responses implemented.

“The family absolutely needs to be included and be part of the early intervention strategy,” he said. “It’s just frustrating to have our leaders taking the ‘either/or’ approach rather than the ‘if/and’ approach to school safety.”

The city council plans a hearing on school safety on Fri., May 12 at 2 p.m. in the Iannella Chamber, City Hall. The hearing is co-chaired by Councillors Erin Murphy and Michael Flaherty.

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