NEW BEDFORD — Since the 2018-2019 school year, 19 students at New Bedford Public Schools have been arrested on school grounds or during off-campus school activities, and the majority of them were Black or Hispanic, according to information provided by the New Bedford Police Department.
Black students are disproportionately represented in the four years of arrest data, given their overall representation in the student body.
About 42% of the arrested students were Black, while they only accounted for about 13.4% of the district’s population over a four-year average, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. About 31.6% of arrests were Hispanic students, who accounted for 41.3% of the district population, and 21% of arrests were white students, who accounted for about 38.6% of the district population on average over the past four academic years.
The data was released after multiple public records requests made by The New Bedford Light to both the city’s schools and police department.
There were eight “school-based” arrests for 2018-2019, eight for 2019-2020, zero for 2020-2021 (the year school went largely remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and three as of Jan. 14 for the 2021-2022 academic year.
The state defines these as arrests of students for any activity conducted on school grounds or during off-campus school activities (such as on a school bus), or arrests resulting from a referral by a school official.
Understanding the arrest data
Lt. Scott Carola, NBPD’s public information officer and current supervisor of the School Resource Officer (SRO) program, said he did not notice the same person being arrested twice when reviewing the arrest reports, meaning 19 individuals are represented by the data.
The information provided by the police department was limited to age, sex, race/ethnicity, school year and reason(s) for the arrest. The names of the students and the schools in which the arrests occurred were not included.
School districts are required to report some of this information to the federal Office for Civil Rights, which protects students against discrimination, as well as to DESE as part of the state’s criminal justice reform. Districts must also report information on whether the students are high needs status, economically disadvantaged, or have disabilities.
Males comprised a majority of the arrested students. The age range is 12 to 19 years old. Fourteen of the 19 arrests were conducted by SROs, Carola said.
All but one of the arrests involve charges for assault and battery, including assault and battery with a weapon, assault and battery against a police officer, or assault and battery against a public employee.
The other charges are trespassing, resisting arrest, intimidating a witness, threat, threatened use of a firearm, disorderly and disturbing conduct, destruction of property, and carrying a dangerous weapon.
Seven of the arrests cite a weapon in the charges. Carola said no guns were involved, and that many cases with weapons or carrying a weapon involved a pocket knife. There was also at least one incident where the weapon was a shod foot (a foot with a shoe), he said.
The Light filed a public records request last week for copies of the arrest reports in order to obtain more information, such as what led to the arrests and the weapons used in each specific case. For example, a 12-year-old female student was arrested for assault and battery with a weapon, but the type of weapon was not disclosed.
Asked about the arrests generally — why the intervention was an arrest instead of non-law enforcement methods — Carola said he could not speak to the arrests that occurred before he was the program supervisor.
“I think as we progress and we get feedback from people, from school committees, from the community at large, we’ve begun to transform the SRO program to be more fitting of what it’s supposed to be,” he said. “It’s supposed to be police officers in schools making connections with kids and ensuring safety and acting in a real guardian type role.”
The district and police department entered a new memorandum of understanding for the SRO program in the fall of 2021, which included a renaming of the program and more detailed guidelines on data collection.
“It appears to me that SROs really see arrest as a last resort, so I feel pretty confident that if an arrest is being made at a school from the officers that I have, it’s a serious issue,” said Carola, who has supervised the program for just over a year. “I don’t have any concern that they’re being arrested for frivolous reasons.”
Leon Smith, executive director of the youth advocacy organization Citizens for Juvenile Justice, said school arrests are ultimately harmful to young people’s futures and can “derail” their life trajectory.
A former public defender for juveniles, Smith said there are certainly school-based emergencies during which an arrest would be appropriate, such as when there is an imminent threat of serious bodily injury to the school population. But he said too often he sees arrests that don’t rise to that level and instead could have been handled through alternative means.
“When members of the public see [assault and battery], I think in their imagination they instantly think, ‘Oh my god, it must have been a gun, it must have been a knife,’” he said. “In my experience, a lot of those cases involve situations where two kids are in a conflict, it gets broken up, and now imagine you have staff pulling them apart… and they’re kicking at each other to get the last lick in.”
“Because a shod foot is considered a dangerous weapon in Massachusetts, suddenly these kids have a felony assault and battery with a dangerous weapon charge,” he said.
Smith also noted the data show racial disparities, particularly Black youth being arrested at a disproportionate rate given their representation in the student population.
“So what we're seeing is … these multiple harms and consequences of school-based arrests are being disproportionately meted out on Black and brown students,” he said, noting students who are arrested at school are more likely to drop out, which he said then increases their likelihood of becoming incarcerated and experiencing unemployment.
On the age of some of the arrested students, Smith said 12 or 13 years old would be the ideal time to address and correct behaviors that might have previously been addressed through an arrest.
“When you have kids that are 12 and 13, that’s really an early intervention,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to really get on top of that young person’s issues and get that young person some help so that as they enter high school … they’re in a better place, as opposed to pushing them into the system early. Once kids hit the system, they’re more likely to end up back in the system.”
New Bedford Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Anderson said he sees any arrest as an issue that school administrators actively look into.
Asked about racial disparities in the district’s arrest data, Anderson said it’s unfortunately a common trend seen across the nation, wherein more “Black and brown” students, particularly males, account for more arrests.
“So yes, there is a problem with that, you know, nationwide. And I think there are some things that we continue to delve into to see why this is the case. What can we do better?” he said. “It remains something that we still have to work on.”
Anderson said since he has been the superintendent, the focus has been that arrests should be the last resort.
“That has been the point of emphasis and on all the communications I’ve had with the chief of police, people on his staff, and we meet with the SROs, that is the objective, that it is the last resort,” he said. “We’ve added more school counselors and we work with our staff to try to identify certain signs to help de-escalate situations.”
He said in most situations, including some physical altercations, school employees are able to de-escalate the situation without an arrest.
Challenges of obtaining student arrest information
In August of 2021, The Light first reported that NBPS failed to report student arrest data to the state, as was required by law starting with the 2018-2019 academic year. Instead, the district reported zero arrests. Police and public school officials in 2021 subsequently confirmed there were 16 “school-based” arrests between 2018 and 2020.
WBUR in 2020 reported that many districts across the state were not reporting arrest data to DESE after the reporting requirement took effect in 2018.
The Light has tried to get more information on those 16 arrests. NBPS has not yet provided further details on the arrests upon request, even though the district is the party responsible for reporting certain demographic data to the state.
An NBPS official has instead directed The Light multiple times to NBPD, saying it is the “keeper” of the data, and to DESE’s website, even though it appears to still reflect zero arrests.
Asked about obtaining disaggregated demographic information, by arrest, with data the district reports to the state education department, Anderson said it can be “tricky” because the district does not want to disclose information that could reveal the identity of a student.
“That ends up giving away too much personal information for a 16-year-old,” Anderson said. “What we're going to share is everything, honestly, that we can appropriately share that's not going to violate our individual student rights.”
Anderson said he would try to work with The Light to see what information the district can provide on the arrests. Asked if it would be possible to get grouped information — for example, the total number of students out of 19 who were of high needs status — the superintendent said he would have to check.
The challenge of obtaining school arrest data has reportedly occurred with other municipalities.
A 2012 report from the ACLU and Citizens for Juvenile Justice on discipline in three Massachusetts school districts stated district and police officials initially refused to provide the information and denied its existence before requesting tens of thousands of dollars from the organizations to produce the records.
“Only after eighteen months, a lawsuit and payments of approximately $8,000 were some of the requested records produced,” the report states.
Under state public records law, the organizations filed requests for arrest data and reports from both school districts and police departments. According to the report, it took one to 18 months to get records from the departments.
DESE publishes district data online, but it does not include the age and reason for arrest. There is a separate information tab with a drop down menu for specific offenses (assault, felony complaint, having a weapon), but it is not clear whether they resulted in arrests.
Additionally, arrests for the district or schools are only shown as a percentage of students.
Per the new agreement between the New Bedford school and police departments, both parties on a monthly basis shall review data on “EFL reports” of arrests and other interventions that occurred during the month. EFL stands for Educational Facilities Liaison — the new name for the SRO program.
It also includes a plan for the police department’s patrol service to maintain and share with the district disaggregated statistical data through “monthly EFL reports'' and “crime analysis.”
One of the recommendations of the ACLU report was that municipalities designate a person in each school district to collect and make public “comprehensive statistical data'' about school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement. This information would include the justification for the arrest, and the age, race, ethnicity, sex and disability status of arrested students, the report states.
While the district will be required to report arrest data to the state’s public website, the city’s agreement makes no specific mention of sharing crime or arrest data directly with the public.
Email Anastasia Lennon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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