For more than a decade, school districts across Massachusetts have failed to comply with federal requirements to report data on the action of police officers in schools, obscuring the impact on students and possibly giving the state a misleading appearance as the least discriminatory in the country.

In September, the Center for Public Integrity released a report examining policing in schools across all 50 states, finding disproportionate impact on students with disabilities and students of color. 

It also found that schools in Massachusetts reported the lowest rate of student arrests and law enforcement referrals of any state in the country, with the lowest rates of discrimination in the policing of Black and disabled students. 

But a New Bedford Light analysis shows this seemingly low rate of arrests in Massachusetts instead reflects the failure of school districts statewide to report this data — and the failure of the state and federal education departments to enforce their own requirements for it to be reported.

“Massachusetts has a sterling reputation for education. But when you look beneath the surface, we have some of the worst racial and ethnic disparities in the country.”

Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice

In the 2015 school year, for example, 38 of the 50 largest school districts in the state reported “zero” school-based arrests, according to information posted on the U.S. Department of Education’s website. Of those districts, 32 did not report any data at all, which includes law enforcement referrals. All have at least 4,000 students in their districts and all but one report to have sworn law enforcement officers in their schools.

“There is widespread non-compliance in districts all across Massachusetts,” said Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a Boston-based research organization. “It’s easy to look like your numbers are low when you’re simply not reporting them.”

Boston, the largest school district in the state, with more than 57,000 students, reported “zero” student arrests in 2015, despite reporting 309 student arrests four years earlier. Worcester, the second-largest school district, with about 25,000 students, has reported a total of six student arrests since 2009, reporting no arrests in three of its five public reports. 

Many mid-sized school districts like New Bedford, Fitchburg, Framingham, Brookline and Quincy did not report any disciplinary data at all in almost every public report since 2009.

Spotty reporting of student arrests statewide

Disciplinary data submitted by some of the state’s larger school districts to the U.S. Department of Education
Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights

“Massachusetts has a sterling reputation for education,” Smith said. “But when you look beneath the surface, we have some of the worst racial and ethnic disparities in the country.”

Last week, the federal Department of Education announced it is “reviewing” the New Bedford schools’ reporting of data on student arrests. The review follows reporting by The New Bedford Light that shows the city’s school department failed to accurately report this data since at least 2017, possibly going back to 2009 — spanning the tenure of four superintendents. 

But state officials and student advocacy groups say the failure to report data on student arrests is an issue statewide — not just in New Bedford — and should be reviewed by the Department of Education as such. 

“There does seem to be an undercount in Massachusetts,” Corey Mitchell, a lead researcher on the Center for Public Integrity report, wrote to The New Bedford Light. CPI is a national investigative news organization focusing on inequality. 

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which protects students against discrimination, has required schools nationwide to publicly report data on student arrests and law enforcement referrals since 2009. Massachusetts followed suit in 2018, when the state Legislature enacted similar requirements. 

Despite the requirements, failures to report this data statewide have persisted. State officials and advocacy groups say responsibility falls on both superintendents — who are charged with accurately reporting this data — and the education departments, who they say have failed to enforce their own requirements. 

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights cites “vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation’s schools,” in its mission statement, posted on its website. 

But a department spokesman declined to answer when asked if there were any fines or penalties associated with failing to report the data. No mechanisms of enforcement are listed on its website. The state education department does not fine schools for failing to report the data that it also requires, according to its spokesperson. 

“Schools may have gotten used to the federal agencies not following up to make sure all of their data was reported,” said Matthew Cregor, a state attorney under the Supreme Judicial Court, who works on an advisory committee for mental health. “For years we have seen a lot of buck passing … the federal requirements have been in place for more than a dozen years.” 

The federal department’s spokesman also declined to answer if it would review the data submitted by Massachusetts schools in addition to New Bedford’s reporting. 

“The thing I fear our state is doing best is hiding the information we need to properly evaluate what police are actually doing in our schools,” Cregor, the state attorney, said. 

At a New Bedford School Committee meeting last week, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Anderson continued his rebranding campaign of the School Resource Officer program, which currently places six armed police officers in the city’s public schools. He said the school will be changing the name of its program, from SRO to Educational Facilities Liaisons.

Anderson did not address the federal review or the schools’ failure to report the data required. In terms of data, he said he is looking to find “what is really in there that can demonstrate the strength of the program,” adding, “we are going to measure what success looks like.”

Community members in New Bedford have been requesting data on student arrests for more than a year and recently criticized the school administration for the lack of transparency, calling for a complete accounting of the number of student arrests and other law enforcement interactions. 

State officials and advocates urged that this issue is not just about data, but the failure of schools statewide to understand the impact of policing on students. 

“If we are going to make the policy choice to police our children in our school buildings, we better make sure we know exactly what they are doing there,” Cregor said. “The data helps tell that story.” 

Email Will Sennott at wsennott@newbedfordlight.org.

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