NEW BEDFORD — More than a year after calls to reform the city’s School Resource Officer program, police and school officials are still withholding complete data on student arrests and police interactions — information that the schools are required to report to state and federal education departments.
There are currently three conflicting sets of data on student arrests recorded by the school department, the police department, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the federal Department of Education. The different reports range from “zero” to 76 arrests at New Bedford schools between 2017 and 2020.
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 the SRO program, which places 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.”
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.
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 NBPD is the keeper of these records and once their original tally of 76 was disaggregated, it showed the number was really 16,” wrote school spokesman Arthur Motta in an email to the Light.
The New Bedford Light has appealed the New Bedford Police Department’s decision to withhold complete information on student interaction with law enforcement, including arrests, citations and referrals. The appeal was filed to the state Supervisor of Public Records in the Secretary of State’s office.
“Our job is to get important information into the hands of the people of New Bedford, so the people can make informed decisions,” said Barbara Roessner, founding editor of The Light. “The data on school resource officers is required by law. It belongs to the people.”
School Committee member Josh Amaral said Wednesday that the schools should thoroughly explain the discrepancies in the data that has been reported. He said the data is important to understand for a simple reason: “Are students being overpoliced?”
“We need a clear explanation of what was included in the 76 that was not included in the 16,” he said. “It’s a priority that students not be involved in the criminal justice system needlessly.”
School districts in Massachusetts have been required since 2018 to report “school-based arrests, citations and court referrals of students” to the state with the data “made available for public review.” The federal Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, which protects students against discrimination, has required biennial reports on student arrests and referrals since 2009.
The New Bedford Light’s decision to appeal comes after the community news website made five public records requests to the school, police department, DESE and the federal Department of Education. Some of the requests resulted in partial information, while other requests were denied.
Here is what we know from the data that The Light has received:
Between 2017 and 2020, the New Bedford School Department recorded a total of 76 arrests of students and parents, according to internal exchanges obtained in August by The Light between the school department and a research firm commissioned by the school district to analyze the SRO program.
Previously, 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 any reforms to the SRO program.
In September, the New Bedford Police Department released information that it had recorded a total of 16 “school-based” arrests since 2018, in response to a public records request filed by The Light. The department did not respond to attempts to clarify the data and denied a further public records request to provide a complete scope of the information that is required to be publicly reported.
The school’s internal records and the data recently reported by the police department further conflict with what the school district has reported to the state and federal education departments for more than a decade.
Last week, the police department declined to release further information on service calls to the public schools and the interaction with students as a result of the service calls, such as citations or law enforcement referrals, in addition to arrests. This data is required by state and federal officials.
Roessner said The Light will continue to pursue release of this data so that the community can assess the program’s impact on students, particularly students of color and students with disabilities. “This is about the civil rights of students,” she said. “The community is entitled to the facts.”
Email Will Sennott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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