For the second time in a week, members of the Greater New Bedford legislative delegation have moved to address apparent dysfunction in an area institution.
State representatives Christopher Markey, Antonio Cabral and Christopher Hendricks told The New Bedford Light Thursday that the state needs to examine why many of the largest school districts in the state, including New Bedford, have not been reporting school-based arrests for more than a decade.
“I think clearly there’s an enforcement mechanism missing in this legislation,” said Hendricks of the 2018 Massachusetts law that mandated the arrest reporting. The federal government has required the districts to report the information for more than a decade.
“A lot of school districts are not doing the reporting that is required in the law and that DESE also requires,” said Cabral. He acknowledged the Massachusetts statute is not clear in the area of enforcement of the reporting requirement.
Markey said the state is not looking to punish anyone, or for a “Gotcha,” but that there are good reasons for the reporting requirement.
“We’re looking to determine policy from this information,” he said. “Having the lack of information won’t allow us to make better policy. My hope is that they (the school districts) participate in it.”
Sen. Mark Montigny and state representatives Bill Straus and Paul Schmid did not return The Light’s requests for comment.
“I think clearly there’s an enforcement mechanism missing in this legislation.”
“A lot of school districts are not doing the reporting that is required in the law and that DESE also requires.”
“Having the lack of information won’t allow us to make better policy.”
Delegation members were also critical of the Southeast Housing Court this week.
On Monday, area legislators met with the state’s housing court’s top official, citing concerns over the disproportionately high rate of evictions in the regional court. The entire delegation with the exception of Markey wrote a recent letter to Chief Justice Timothy Sullivan after a New Bedford Light investigation.
Reporting the school arrests has been a problem in New Bedford, and the state is seeking the arrest data in order to determine, among other things, if there is bias in the discipline meted out to students of color.
In New Bedford schools, some 14% of the students are Black, but Black students account for 22.4% of discipline.
Since 2009, New Bedford schools have reported “zero” as the number of school-based arrests, according to The New Bedford Light’s investigation. The Light later reported that larger schools across the state have also failed to accurately report numbers of arrests and police interactions with students.
In the wake of the New Bedford report, Superintendent Thomas Anderson’s spokesman recently acknowledged 76 arrests between 2017 and 2020. Anderson’s office later revised that down to 16 between 2018 and 2020. There seemed to be some confusion over which arrests fit the required criteria.
Matthew Cregor, a lawyer with the Supreme Judicial Court’s Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, has theorized that schools across the state may have gotten used to the federal government not following up on the arrest reporting requirement.
The issue has come to the fore in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests in the city during the summer of 2020. The Coalition to Save Our Schools and other critics have called for the removal of police officers in the middle and high schools but many city residents, including some members of the School Committee, have defended the so-called school resource officers, saying the program is a success and sets a good example for students. SROs are not permitted to be involved in disciplinary matters, according to state law.
Anderson has rejected a recommendation from the school department’s own consultant, the Rennie Center for Educational Research and Policy, to reduce the number of SROs and replace them with social and academic mentors. Instead, Anderson has rebranded New Bedford’s SRO program, changing the name to Education Facilities Liaisons.
Markey suggested that withdrawal of state funding or ability to apply for state grants that could be used if the school districts continue to resist reporting.
At least one School Committee member, Colleen Dawicki, has said it has been difficult for the committee’s own panel charged with researching SROs to obtain clear data on what’s going on in the schools relative to them. Mayor Jon Mitchell and most of the committee, however, have been largely silent on the lack of reporting, describing it as a communication problem.
Cabral recommended that a memorandum of understanding be sent from DESE to both the police and school departments making sure the numbers get reported and that they are accurate numbers. He also said DESE could examine if there are better ways to enforce its requirement.
“I think I would like to see those two approaches first and then if we don’t have a resolution, then perhaps we ought to look at the law itself,” he said.
Markey suggested that a withdrawal of state funding or ability to apply for state grants might be measures that could be used if the school districts continue to resist reporting.
“If they don’t participate in it, and we see it consistent again, I think that there may be some ramifications to that,” he said.
Markey said he supports the SRO officers in the schools, which he said obtain information useful to police and other information that is useful to school officials.
“As a parent, I can’t always be there, but the school resource officer is there,” he said. “He can make the determination as to who’s hanging out with who — who looks like they’re gang members. And have that intelligence so that that can be passed on to protect themselves on the street, and also to protect the community.”
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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