NEW BEDFORD — Community leaders and School Committee members assailed school administrators on Wednesday, calling for accountability and transparency after The New Bedford Light reported that school officials have been inaccurately reporting data on student arrests for the past three years.
“The very first step needs to be to share everything we have in the most transparent way possible,” said Colleen Dawicki, vice chair of the School Committee. “It is tremendously frustrating that the district made this unforced error.”
In an email to The New Bedford Light, a spokesman acknowledged the schools have recorded a total of 76 arrests of students and parents between 2017 and 2020.
Dr. LaSella Hall, president of the New Bedford Chapter of the NAACP and a critic of the city’s school resource officer program, said the lack of transparency from administrators makes it clear that the SROs should be eliminated.
“They are not reporting what they are supposed to be reporting.” Hall said.“This is just confirmation that the program needs to cease.”
On Tuesday, the School Department released “internal” exchanges after public document requests from the New Bedford Light, acknowledging that the department had recorded a total of 76 arrests of students and parents between 2017 and 2020.
The data conflicts with the School Department reporting “zero” arrests of students in the same time frame to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the federal Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
Ricardo Rosa, co-chair of Coalition to Save Our Schools and a participant in the School Department’s review of its SRO program, criticized both the administration and the program, which places armed police officers inside public schools.
“If they were withholding data, that’s a clear indication the program needs to be not just reformed, but transformed,” he said. “The superintendent has talked about transparency. Is this what transparency looks like?”
Superintendent of Schools Thomas Anderson declined to be interviewed for his story, through his spokesman. “His schedule is full,” said Arthur Motta. Mayor Jon Mitchell, who chairs the School Committee, also did not respond to requests for comment.
School Committee members, some of whom had previously requested clear data on the SRO program from the district, said they were not aware of this data on student arrests.
Christopher Cotter, who is a New Bedford police officer, a member of the School Committee and a former SRO, said he doesn’t think “every interaction with law enforcement needs to be tracked.” But he added, “If there is a physical arrest in the school, then yes. That should be reported,” he said. “That is a serious issue.”
Cotter is the most vocal advocate for the SRO program on the School Committee.
“The discrepancy in data on school arrests is concerning,” said School Committee member Josh Amaral.
School districts in Massachusetts have been required since 2018 to report “school-based arrests, citations and court referrals of students” to the state. The federal Office for Civil Rights, which protects students against discrimination, has required biennial reports on student arrests and referrals since at least 2009. Its public database shows the New Bedford Public Schools listing “zero” student arrests in all its reports.
Melissa Threadgill, a state official with the Office of the Child Advocate, the oversight agency on state services for kids, said the issue is serious on a district level — but added that the lack of accountability on districts accurately reporting data is a statewide issue.
“Many large school districts report zero arrests, which we think does not actually reflect reality,” Threadgill said. “The only way to really know what is happening, if school resource officers are contributing to arrest rates of students, is to have data.”
The newly released information comes after a 14-month review of the SRO program, and the superintendent’s decision to maintain the program in New Bedford schools without any reform. Those involved in the review described the process as “flawed” — mainly due to the lack of information that was available to analyze the SRO program and understand its impact on students.
The arrest data, sent by email from New Bedford Schools spokesman Arthur Motta to The Light late Tuesday, included 42 arrests in the 2017-2018 school year (one protective custody); 24 arrests during the 2018-2019 academic year (including two non-students); and 10 arrests in the 2019-2020 school year (including one non-student).
Since the review of the SRO program began, community groups and individuals have filed multiple public records requests, centering mostly on student arrests in the New Bedford Schools. The Coalition to Save Our Schools filed a public records request in July of 2020, which Rosa said was not fulfilled.
Cara Busch, whose husband is a teacher in the New Bedford Public Schools, filed a series of public records requests last month. The request regarding data on the SRO program is still pending, she said.
“I’m hopeful this might mean they (the schools) will take accountability for having some of this information and not being transparent about it in the past,” she said in an interview Wednesday.
The newly revealed data came from “internal” exchanges between the School Department and a research firm commissioned to analyze discipline and the SRO program in the schools.
A complete account of student arrests on New Bedford school grounds has not yet been provided. Public records requests to the School Department and New Bedford Police Department are still pending.
In an email, Motta cited the pandemic for the absence of data and conflicting reports, stating that it “interrupted regular operations for the last year and a half.” He added: “This has been identified as an area of improvement and the work continues.”
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