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Between the Lines: Beyond the Principal's Office

A civil-rights group calls on Springfield to address its "school-to-prison pipeline."

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

In 2007, a 14-year-old student at Springfield's Kennedy Middle School was arrested by city police. His transgression? Refusing to go with a teacher who told him to come to her office, and yelling at her, slamming a classroom door and bouncing a basketball in the school hallway. When a police officer assigned to the school arrived and asked the boy to go with the teacher, he again refused. So the boy was handcuffed, taken to the police department and charged with disturbing a lawful assembly.

That anecdote leads off "Arrested Futures," a recent report by the ACLU of Massachusetts and Citizens for Juvenile Justice. The report, which looks at the number of school-based arrests in the three largest cities in Massachusetts, contends that having police officers assigned to public schools leads to kids' being arrested for behavior that might be bad, but doesn't rise to the level of criminal.

And that, the report says, can have dire, long-term consequences: students who are arrested at school are three times more likely to drop out than others. Dropouts are eight times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system than their peers—at the expense of taxpayers, who pay three times as much to feed and house prisoners than to educate public-school students.

While it's appropriate for schools to call on police when a student's behavior poses a real threat, the authors wrote, in many cases, the police were called in to enforce internal school behavior codes. "In such districts, officers are encouraged to arrest, in many cases using public order offenses as a justification, students who are unruly, disrespectful, use profanity, or show 'attitude,'" the report says.

The student-arrest rate in Springfield was three times that in Boston, and five times that in Worcester, the report found. You might expect those figures to prompt city officials to take a serious look at the policy and practices of having police in the schools; to question when arrests are appropriate and when they're not; to consider other discipline strategies that are effective but not unduly punitive.

But instead, says the Rev. Talbert Swan II, president of the city's NAACP branch, officials seem more interested in sweeping the problem under the rug. "They've in essence made a decision that the report is flawed and it's nothing that needs to be addressed," he told the Advocate. "It's concerning that that's the initial and immediate response before ever really taking an opportunity to really digest the information in the report or to have any conversations about it with stakeholders."

Alan Ingram, Springfield's out-going superintendent of schools, responded to the report in an op-ed piece for the Republican, in which he questioned the validity of the findings and suggested the authors twisted data and selected the most dramatic anecdotes to suit their agenda. The 210 school arrests in the 2009-10 school year, Ingram wrote, represented a small portion of the 1,103 "Code of Conduct violations" in city schools, which included assaults, weapons and drug possessions and gang activity. "Arrest is resorted to as a final and last alternative," Ingram wrote.

"We make no apology for placing the highest priority on the safety and security of our students every day," he added. "Of course, we would prefer no school-based arrests but that is not our reality as an urban school district." School Committee member Antonette Pepe also questioned the report, telling the Republican that the findings were "way off base."

Swan described such responses as defensive and unhelpful. He's calling on the School Department and School Committee to begin a public dialogue that looks at, among other issues, how teachers and police are trained to deal with student behavior; the biases teachers who are largely white women from outside the city might bring into classrooms filled overwhelmingly with poor children of color; and the factors that contribute to behavior problems. "Many youth with learning disabilities, histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, that would benefit from educational and counseling services are often isolated, punished and pushed out of schools because of the inability of school staff to identify or address the mitigating factors that cause disruptive behavior," Swan wrote in a press release. "A policy of involving police in matters where ill-equipped staff fails to utilize tools to properly address situations only criminalizes minor infractions of school rules."

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