NEW BEDFORD — At last month’s School Committee meeting, Superintendent Thomas Anderson told committee members there were two student arrests and an additional 237 “referrals” to law enforcement during the 2021-2022 school year.
However, a public records request made by The Light to New Bedford Police Department found there were actually seven arrests on school grounds during that time period, including five students of New Bedford High School who were all arrested on the high school campus by police officers stationed there.
“There’s no discrepancy there,” said Anderson when asked about the apparent conflict in an interview with The Light. “You have the arrests that we report to DESE (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) — there are two. Any of the other arrests are not things that we track as a school system.”
Anderson said he followed the state’s guidelines. “What we have to report are the two arrests that happened in the building.” Other arrests, Anderson said, may have happened in the parking lot and pertained to issues, like domestic disputes, that did not originate in school.
The full information on student arrests still ought to be communicated, said School Committee member Melissa Costa, who also works as a social worker. “It still involves our youth; it still happened on school property.”
When asked why all five student arrests weren’t included in his report to the School Committee, Anderson said, “I’m going to share what we need to share.” He added: “It’s still an issue if a student gets arrested at any point in time for whatever reason,” noting that these arrests could lead to additional outreach to the affected families.
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.
The state and federal departments require the reporting of this data to monitor potential discrimination against students of color and students with disabilities, according to the Office of Civil Rights. Critics of keeping armed police officers inside the schools have long claimed that the program is biased against minorities, contributes to the “school to prison pipeline” and “criminalizes student behavior.”
Costa requested at the last School Committee meeting that Anderson share more information about the 237 law enforcement “referrals,” a term that does not make clear what happens to the students, including whether they were eventually charged with a crime. To date, Costa says she nor other members of the School Committee have received any further information.
Other members did not respond to requests for comment on this story. The School Committee is scheduled to meet Oct. 17 at 6 p.m. in the Steven De Rossi Community Room at Keith Middle School.
With more than 200 referrals last year, New Bedford Public Schools averaged more than one student referral to law enforcement each school day.
According to DESE, referrals should be made any time there is an incident “involving drug, violent, or crime-related offenses.” In addition, schools make referrals any time they remove a student from the learning environment; this could be for emergency or law-enforcement removals, expulsions, out-of-school suspensions and in-school suspensions that last more than one half-day.
It is not clear if the 237 referrals in New Bedford represent the number of unique individuals referred or if students with multiple referrals are counted multiple times.
Anderson previously told The Light that he did not have more information about the nature of these referrals, but said that schools are not handing out all of a student’s personal information to law enforcement.
“The reality is that the public school system talks about valuing data,” said Ricardo Rosa, a member of the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools. “But amazingly, when it comes to this topic, they have no data.”
Rosa said about the arrests, “Lots of students have been arrested in schools or on the way to schools or on the way home.” All of these are equally important, he said, as “a major contributor to the school-to-prison pipeline.”
What arrests need to be reported?
A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provided the following official description: “School-related arrest refers to an arrest of a student for any activity conducted on school grounds, or during off-campus school activities (including while taking school transportation), or due to a referral by any school official. All school-related arrests are considered referrals to law enforcement.” Though New Bedford students were arrested on school grounds, the district did not report them because the arrests were not made for “activity conducted on school grounds.”
In August 2021, The Light first reported that New Bedford schools had underreported arrest data to both state and federal education authorities. Though the district had repeatedly reported no student arrests and no arrests on school grounds, information obtained by The Light revealed there were multiple arrests that were not reported. A series of New Bedford Light stories helped the Center for Public Integrity to uncover chronic underreporting of arrest data in many of the nation’s largest school districts.
“We needed a better accounting of what was going on than reading it in the newspaper,” said Josh Amaral, a former School Committee member who was serving at the time.
The state’s online accountability system still shows that New Bedford has not reported any arrests since the 2018-2019 school year, although Anderson said the corrected data has been provided: “I can’t speak to what [DESE’s] turnaround time is,” he said.
The federal database doesn’t show any arrests either, though federal data is updated less frequently, and 2017 is the most recent year displayed.
The attention to school arrests came to light after the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, and ensuing national protests. School districts across the country began examining the need for armed police officers in public schools.
More recently, there have been increased calls for school safety after shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and elsewhere around the country.
New Bedford schools have been increasing staffing costs for security in school buildings — which have risen from $756,000 in 2019 to $1.6 million in 2022 — while leaving the funding for the six SROs (now called Education Facility Liaisons in New Bedford’s schools) to the city.
In addition, other security costs have been folded into routine technology and capital improvements. For example, as the district announced new investments in more than 3,000 new Chromebooks, officials noted the purchase of new security monitors and cameras, as well as upgrades to existing security technology. Other “school hardening measures,” such as new doors, windows, and entrance vestibules, were included in capital improvement projects across the district.
At the same time, the district has used new funds from the Student Opportunity Act to greatly increase investments into mental health resources. The district now spends more than $10 million each year to support mental health resources, including hiring counselors and other staff.
“We take the restorative justice approach with students,” said high school principal Bernadette Coehlo in a statement about school discipline. “It’s about repairing harm and rebuilding relationships. Our school adjustment counselors are also instrumental in helping to resolve the peer-to-peer conflicts with mediations.”
Still, School Committee member Costa said she believes there ought to be more transparency about student arrests, including more information about “the implications of that arrest and how it impacts their education.”
“I think we need a better system,” she said.
Email Colin Hogan at email@example.com