NEW BEDFORD — When students return to classes this fall, the School Resource Officer program will continue without any substantial reforms — conflicting with recommendations of a research firm commissioned by the School Department and frustrating community advocates who feel intentionally overlooked.
The decision caps 14 months of “extensive review,” said Superintendent of Schools Thomas Anderson, beginning last summer during the groundswell of calls to reevaluate policing in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
But more than a year later, those who proposed reforming or eliminating the SRO program remain frustrated by what they call a “flawed” review process — and even more so by the superintendent’s decision to maintain the program without reform.
The review process involved creating a working group, described by members as “ineffective,” dissolving prematurely after their fourth meeting in March. It also included an outside analysis of disciplinary practices and the SRO program, commissioned by the School Department and conducted by the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy — the guidance of which the administration has decided not to follow.
The report outlined inequities in disciplinary practices and recommended a “purposeful reduction” of the SRO program in New Bedford schools, conflicting with the superintendent’s decision. It was described in the report as: “an effort that is vital for the futures of our students.”
Instead, the only immediate reform being considered is a new name, “to change the perception of the program,” Superintendent Anderson said at a July 12 School Committee meeting, when the decision was announced.
The SRO program, which places armed police officers in schools, has been a contentious issue in New Bedford for the two decades it has been in use. It was forged nationally in response to the Columbine school shooting in 1999. There are currently seven officers in New Bedford schools.
The program has significant support among parents, school employees and School Committee members — specifically Christopher Cotter, a longtime city police officer and former SRO. Supporters see officers as a deterrence against violence from outside and within the schools.
There are also many who take issue with the program, describing it as biased against minorities, contributing to the “school to prison pipeline” and “criminalizing student behavior.” Per state law, SROs are required not to be involved in discipline, though the report states officers sometimes do become involved in discipline.
The Rennie Center report noted “inconsistencies in disciplinary practices … and blurry definitions of defiance, disruption and disobedience,” in New Bedford. The result “can lead to disproportionality in disciplinary outcomes for students of color in the district,” the report continued.
Black students represent 14 percent of the district, while making up 22.4 percent of all students disciplined, according to the report. The report, however, did not provide local metrics on the SRO program or interactions between officers and students, instead relying on state data and local surveys. Data was “largely collected by NBPS,” the report notes, “more data collection would be necessary to be truly representative.”
The report also outlined the thoughts of students — some of whom said the officers make them feel safe in school, while other students said the opposite.
“Honestly, I just see [SROs] in the halls telling people not to run, that’s it. I never talk to them, so I don’t trust them at all,” said one anonymous student, quoted in the Rennie Center report.
The report concluded: “We recommend a conscientious and purposeful reduction in the usage of SROs over an agreed-upon period of time, coupled with slow and intentional implementation of alternatives to exclusionary discipline.” It further recommended replacing the program with counselor programs that provide “social and academic mentors for students.”
After the killing of George Floyd, and the ensuing calls to reevaluate policing on a local and national level, some New Bedford community groups focused their efforts specifically on reforming, and potentially eliminating the SRO program in New Bedford schools.
Nationally, 43 percent of public schools reported the presence of law enforcement officers, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The movement to reform or eliminate the SRO program has gained traction in the last year. Some school districts in the state, like Worcester, have eliminated the program.
Last summer, local community groups — which included the Coalition to Save Our Schools, NAACP New Bedford branch, United Interfaith Action of Southeastern Massachusetts, and individual parents and teachers of New Bedford students — met with Superintendent Anderson and asked if he would be willing to reevaluate the SRO program.
“We asked [Superintendent Anderson] to reevaluate the program … and listen to what the community has to say,” said Andrea Sheppard Lomba, director of UIA. “We only asked him to listen.”
With the superintendent’s approval, a working group was formed, which included those community groups, along with members of the School Committee, teachers and administration. The group represented diverse perspectives, from some who wished to eliminate the program to others who wished to maintain the program with little or no reform.
But members of the group outlined problems with the review process, describing it as “troubled from the start,” “ineffective,” and “flawed.”
The intention, members said, was to review data, disciplinary policy and feedback from students, parents and teachers on the SRO program. Ultimately, the group planned to collectively propose a recommendation of reforms to be considered by the superintendent, who under state policy has sole decision-making power regarding the program.
But discussions within the working group quickly devolved into internal discussions about the lack of data available to inform a recommendation. The group never got as far as proposing a recommendation. Instead of hearing comments from students or discussing data, members said they were subjected to “propaganda” videos encouraging the perspective of the SRO program.
“Discussions were stalled because the district said it did not have any data to provide,” said Ricardo Rosa, a member of the working group and co-chair of the Coalition to Save Our Schools. “It fell apart when we pushed back on their methodology.”
Colleen Dawicki, vice-chairperson of the School Committee and a member of the working group, also said there were “methodological challenges” with how the district gathered data.
“There was very little data,” she said, in an interview following the July meeting. “There really wasn’t much to react to there.”
Without sufficient data, the group recommended an independent research firm to review the program and gather data to inform future discussions on the SRO program. Anderson dissolved the group in March, after four of six scheduled meetings, and commissioned the Rennie Center to conduct the report.
Members said they believed at the time the group would reconvene to discuss the Rennie Center report, which would guide their recommendation. But they never reconvened. And in July, Anderson announced his decision to maintain the program without any substantial reform.
“We wanted to have an open mind,” he said, at the July School Committee meeting when describing the review process. “We were on a short timeline.” Anderson declined an interview with The Light.
Some members of the working group said they felt Anderson made a sufficient effort to solicit input on the decision. “The district was intentional about reaching out to the community groups who raised the issues of the SRO program,” said Sheppard Lomba, director of UIA.
But others in the working group said they felt like their meetings were only symbolic. They said the administration intentionally slow-walked the process without the intention of considering a recommendation.
“They had their finger on the scale every step of the way,” said David Ehrens, a member of the group. “They were proceeding to their desired outcome … to preserve the SRO program as it was.”
“The school district didn’t want anything substantial coming out of these groups,” Rosa said. “It’s clear to us the process was just symbolic.”
After the group was dissolved, Anderson relied on the Rennie Center report to inform his decision on the SRO program. At the meeting, he acknowledged the school district has “some shortcomings when it comes to discipline,” as outlined in the report.
But members of the working group remain frustrated that Anderson is not considering reforms recommended by the Rennie Center — especially after their input was muted by the group’s dissolution.
Despite his decision, Anderson still came under fire from those who supported the SRO program. School Committee member Cotter, formerly an SRO himself, said he disagreed with the idea of changing the SRO program’s name.
“I don’t understand what changing the School Resource Officer name has to do with anything … they are a law enforcement entity that has to act if they have to act,” he said, at the July meeting. “In my opinion, that is giving in to cancel-culture.”
School Committee members said they should implement an ongoing and regular review of the SRO program in the years ahead. The program will be discussed again in August.
“There is no way to make everyone happy here,” Anderson said.
But the superintendent said he will not be following the recommendation of the Rennie Center report that he commissioned, which concluded: “Reducing the reliance on discipline and SROs in a single school, let alone district-wide, will take a collective, focused, and determined effort — an effort that is vital for the futures of our students.”
Email Will Sennott at email@example.com.
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