NEW BEDFORD — The School Department has been inaccurately reporting data on student arrests for at least three years — violating state and federal requirements and stifling a yearlong review of the controversial program that places armed police officers in New Bedford schools.
According to information emailed to The New Bedford Light Tuesday after numerous public records requests, a schools spokesman for the first time acknowledged that the schools have recorded a total of 76 arrests of students and parents between 2017 and 2020.
But the School Department has reported “zero” arrests of students in the same time frame to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the federal Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
Superintendent of Schools Thomas Anderson declined interview requests about the school arrest data for more than two weeks, but when questioned by The Light about the “zero” figure in a brief interview following the August School Committee meeting, he said he stood by the number.
“I’m telling you, the numbers are zero,” Anderson said.
The arrest data, sent by email from New Bedford Schools spokesman Arthur Motta, included 42 arrests between 2017 and 2018 (one protective custody); 24 arrests between 2018 and 2019 (including two non-students); and 10 arrests between 2019 and 2020 (including one non-student).
Motta said the data came from the New Bedford Police Department and included arrests of both parents and students “on activities outside the classroom.” He noted: “We do not believe all arrests were conducted by SROs (school resource officers).”
Violation of reporting requirements
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 2009. Its public database shows the New Bedford Public Schools listing “zero” student arrests in all its reports.
The state records the information on student arrests by percentages, and according to spokesperson Jacqueline Reis, the New Bedford School Department has reported zero student arrests on school grounds since 2018. “The zeroes are zeroes (not small decimals),” she wrote in an email to The Light.
“The only way to really know what is happening, if school resource officers are contributing to arrest rates, is to have the data,” said Melissa Threadgill, a state official with the Office of the Child Advocate, the oversight agency on state services for kids, in a recent interview.
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.”
‘Flawed’ review of SRO program
The newly surfaced data is the most recent revelation in the 14-month review of the SRO program in New Bedford Schools, which concluded in July when the superintendent announced that the program would continue without any reform.
After the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, school districts across the country began examining the SRO program, which places armed police officers in public schools. In New Bedford, parents and community groups echoed nationwide concerns that the program is biased against minorities, contributes to the “school to prison pipeline” and “criminalizes student behavior.”
Those involved in New Bedford’s review process described it as “flawed” — mainly due to a lack of information available to understand the impact of the program on students.
The review process included the formation of a working group, intended to represent diverse perspectives, review data and ultimately make recommendations for reform. But the group was dissolved prematurely after only its fourth meeting — citing the absence of information on student arrests and other data.
“There was very little data,” said Colleen Dawicki, vice-chairperson of the School Committee, about the review process at the time. “There really wasn’t much to react to there.”
The School Committee then commissioned a report from the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, a Boston-based research firm, to analyze the discipline in the New Bedford Schools and the impact of the SRO program on students.
The Rennie report recommended the “purposeful reduction” of the SRO program and implementing counselor programs that provide “social and academic mentors for students.”
But in July, Superintendent Anderson announced his decision to maintain the program without any substantial reform.
Rennie Center did not report arrest data
The Rennie Center’s lead researcher told The Light that the school district did provide the data, but the authors decided not to include it in the public report.
“The data I received from the district on arrests was stored internally. Unfortunately, I do not have the permission to share this data set,” wrote Sophie Zamarripa in an email. “The final report did not include visualizations from that data set.”
A spokesman for the Rennie Center said the authors intentionally withheld the data because they believed it was limited. The final report urged the district to develop its data collection systems, which were deemed insufficient.
The lack of data in the Rennie report drew criticism from both sides of the SRO debate.
“I know that many kids are in court because of SROs — yet, there is no data to track this,” said Christopher Cotter at the August School Committee meeting, before the new information surfaced. Cotter is a former SRO, a current New Bedford police officer and the strongest voice on the School Committee defending the program.
No state or federal check on data
Despite requirements to report student arrests and law enforcement referrals, the state and federal departments say they have no way to verify the accuracy of the data reported.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights wrote in an email that only a district superintendent, or superintendent designee, can certify the accuracy of data submission.
“Each district is required to certify the accuracy of its submission,” wrote a spokesperson. “Ultimately, the quality of the CRDC data depends on accurate collection and reporting by the participating districts.”
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