Despite unanimous approval at the Springfield School Committee’s May 18 meeting for a revised memorandum of understanding (MOU) between Springfield Public Schools and the Springfield Police Department, advocacy group Neighbor to Neighbor thinks the new document does little to disrupt what it calls the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Jafet Robles, a Springfield organizer with Neighbor to Neighbor, told the Valley Advocate the group fears that students might be arrested for painting their nails or swearing in school because the MOU doesn’t outline whether students could be arrested for these minor issues.
“There wasn’t really a whole lot that changed. The language is pretty much the same as the last MOU,” he said. “My concern was just around clarity on what’s an arrestable offence because currently there’s a lot of things that fall under misdemeanor arrestable offenses, which are things like cursing in public that we personally feel shouldn’t lead to an arrest.”
The American Civil Liberties Union published a study called “Arrested Futures” in 2012 that revealed student arrest data in the cities of Boston, Springfield, and Worcester. In Springfield, a total of 251 students were arrested during the 2007-2008 school year and 134 of those arrests were for misdemeanor public order offenses such as verbally confronting a teacher or refusing to follow an order, according to the report.
At the same time, there has been an improvement in the schools during the past decade — about 80 students were arrested during the 2015-2016 school year.
Robles said Neighbor to Neighbor provided school officials with a list of such offenses, which includes disorderly conduct, disturbance of a public assembly, loitering, profanity, and fighting that does not involve physical injury or a weapon, but that the language was not included in the MOU.
Springfield Police Sgt. John Delaney, the department’s media spokesperson, said examples of arrestable offenses include disrupting school in session as well as assault and battery in the presence of a police officer. He said police officers know what offenses should lead to an arrest through their academy and in-service training.
“There is no need to list the numerous misdemeanors police can arrest for,” he said. “The officers … are handpicked and professional. They are well-trained and are good at problem solving. Arrest is their last resort on the majority of investigations and incidents.”
Robles said although Neighbor to Neighbor members met with Superintendent of Schools Daniel Warwick and Assistant Superintendent Lydia Martinez as well as School Committee at-large members Norman Roldan and Denise Hurst the group’s concerns were not included in the revised MOU. He said he was also frustrated that the MOU was placed on the agenda quicker than expected before parents had an opportunity to share their personal stories about student arrests with the School Committee.
“[Superintendent Warwick] gave me a paper from lawyers saying how they looked at our proposal for the MOU and why they denied it,” Robles said. “We had one day to look at it … It was all really rushed.”
Springfield Public Schools responded to Neighbor to Neighbor concerns in a letter that addresses them point by point. In response to the point about arrestable offenses, school officials said the district’s code of conduct gives discipline juristiction to school officials rather than the police, but that public order offenses, including disorderly conduct and others mentioned by Neighbor to Neighbor, are under the juristiction of state law.
The revised MOU does not mention the list provided by Neighbor to Neighbor. However, it did reduce the budget for school resource officers from $1.7 to $1.3 million and the resource officer unit is scaled down from 23 officers to 17. The format of the new MOU has changed, but most of the main points on topics such as distinguishing disciplinary misconduct from criminal offenses are worded much the same.
Warwick said he believes the district responded to Neighbor to Neighbor’s concerns appropriately.
“We’ve been working on this MOU every year for a number of years. There’s a give and take with the Police Department around the services and school staff and trying to find the right fit. I think Assistant Superintendent Martinez had had some issues like making sure that an arrest is the last resort and that we don’t have a lot of kids ending up with records that we don’t want them to have,” Warwick said.
Robles doesn’t discount that Springfield has made improvements in decreasing the number of student arrests, but thinks Neighbor to Neighbor should continue its advocacy until student arrests are brought down to zero.
“[The MOU] just gives cops too much power to arrest a kid … We don’t want kids being arrested for being kids and that’s a scenario that we ran into a lot when we were out there door knocking,” he said.
Chris Goudreau can be reached at email@example.com.