NEW BEDFORD — The U.S. Department of Education is examining the New Bedford Schools’ reporting of data on student arrests, according to a federal spokesman.
The notice late Wednesday night follows reporting by the New Bedford Light that shows the school department failed to publicly report accurate data on student arrests since at least 2017. Earlier Wednesday, The Light formally appealed the New Bedford Police Department’s denial of a public records request for complete information on student interaction with school-based police officers, including: arrests, citations and court referrals. The Light’s appeal was filed with the Massachusetts Secretary of State.
“OCR is reviewing the New Bedford 2017-18 CRDC submission and will follow up with the school district, as appropriate,” a spokesman for the federal Department of Education wrote in an email to The Light on Wednesday night. The OCR is the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, and the CRDC is its Civil Rights Data Collection program — which requires schools to publicly report data on student arrests and other disciplinary action.
Community groups and members of the School Committee described the announcement as a positive development in the longstanding lack of transparency regarding data on student arrests in New Bedford schools.
“This form of accountability is needed in local school districts,” said Ricardo Rosa, co-chair of the Coalition to Save Our Schools, a group that has requested and been denied information on student arrests for more than a year. “School districts are operating without any real accountability. It’s critical that this is happening.”
Since 2009, the school department has publicly reported “zero” arrests of students to the federal and state education departments.
However, the school had recorded a total of 76 arrests of students and parents between 2017 and 2020, according to internal exchanges between the school department and a research firm commissioned by the schools. The internal exchanges were obtained by The Light in August — the first accounting of any data on arrests made public.
In September, the New Bedford Police Department backtracked on the 76 arrests it had previously recorded, instead stating there have only been 16 “school-based” arrests since 2018. School and police officials did not respond to requests to explain the discrepancy.
“The data is representing real kids, with real lives,” said Colleen Dawicki, vice chair of the School Committee, on Thursday. “These are kids who can have long-term consequences from an encounter with a police officer. The most important thing about the data is to understand that.”
Superintendent Thomas Anderson declined Thursday to comment on the federal review. But Anderson, who previously stated that he stood by the “zero” arrests reported to the state and federal departments of education, subsequently said the school department takes responsibility for failing to report this data, as required by state and federal law.
“It’s unacceptable,” Anderson said, in an email delivered through his spokesperson, “There’s no excuse and we’ll own that piece.”
Mayor Jon Mitchell, who also chairs the School Committee, declined to comment.
The federal review comes more than a year after community groups urged reforms to the city’s School Resource Officer program, which places armed police officers inside schools. The district currently has six SROs in the high school, middle schools and alternative schools.
The departments require the reporting of this data to monitor potential discrimination against students of color and students with disabilities, according to the Department of Education. Critics have long claimed that the program is biased against minorities and contributes to the “school to prison pipeline.”
But during a 14-month review into reforming the SRO program, the school department stated it did not have any information on school-based arrests. The lack of data blurred attempts by community groups to understand the impact of the SRO program on students and derailed the lengthy review process, which concluded in July without reforms to the SRO program.
Community leaders and School Committee members in New Bedford have criticized the school administration and police for the lack of transparency, calling for a complete and thorough accounting of the number of student arrests and other law enforcement interactions in order to understand the impact of the SRO program on students.
The federal Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, which protects students against discrimination, has required schools to report data on student arrests, referrals and other disciplinary action every other year since 2009. School districts in Massachusetts have been required since 2018 to report “school-based arrests, citations and court referrals of students” to the state and have the data “made available for public review.”
The data, which is recorded by police and given to the school department, is required to be publicly reported by the schools.
There is significant support for the SROs in New Bedford public schools. But for those opposed to the program, the failure to report data on student arrests makes it clear that the SRO program should be reformed.
“They are not reporting what they are supposed to be reporting,” said Dr. LaSella Hall, president of the New Bedford Chapter of the NAACP, in an August interview. “This is just confirmation that the program needs to cease.”
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