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  • Tom Nolan

There is no place for police in public schools: Here's why—

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

For most of my 27 years as a Boston police officer, the "Boston School Police" existed in some form. These school "police officers" weren't taken very seriously by most law enforcement officers: they drove hand-me-down old cruisers when they had cars at all. They were unarmed, wore funky uniforms, had little training; they had severely restricted and limited actual police authority, and worked for the minimum hourly wage. These "officers" were essentially security guards who worked for the Boston Public Schools (BPS), not the police department. They would occasionally appear at the district booking desk with a prisoner, almost always a young Black or Brown teenaged boy arrested at school.

Long after I left the police department in 2004, and after I was immersed in an academic career, I began doing pro bono consulting work for immigration attorneys and immigration law clinics at Boston College Law School and Suffolk Law School. These attorneys and "3L" law students represented teenaged boys who were BPS students and who had been "detained" by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and who were in the midst of deportation proceedings. All of the students whose cases I reviewed were from El Salvador and they were all being held in jail awaiting their deportation hearings before an Immigration Judge. (Immigration courts and immigration judges are not part of the federal judiciary system—they are part of the Department of Justice).

These boys and young men were all in the United States without documentation. The basis for their arrests ("detention") and deportations was that they had been "verified" as gang members based on their inclusion in the Boston Police Department's (BPD's) "Gang Assessment Database." Officials at the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, aka the "BRIC," part of the Boston Police Department where the database is housed, provided ICE with supposed documentation attesting to the boys' verification as "gang members." (This in apparent violation of Boston's "Sanctuary City" ordinance). The verification was in the form of so-called "gang packets," paper files that were typically 30 pages or so in length containing materials supporting the contention that these BPS students were members of either MS-13 or the 18th Street gangs.

I am an expert on criminal intelligence databases and the federal codes (laws) governing what materials can legally be included in criminal intelligence databases (28 CFR Part 23). My expertise has been recognized in Immigration Court, the United States District Court, and the First Circuit Court of Appeals (see Diaz Ortiz v. Garland). The Boston Police Department's Gang Assessment Database is a criminal intelligence database required by federal law to be compliant with 28 CFR Part 23.

My role in consulting with the immigration attorneys and in testifying in Immigration Court consisted of examining the "gang packets" to determine if the information that was included in the packets and in the BPD's "Gang Assessment Database" was compliant with the applicable federal requirements contained in 28 CFR Part 23. I reviewed 30-40 of these "gang packets" and testified in about a dozen deportation hearings. Most of the information contain in the "Gang Assessment Database" and in the "gang packets" did not meet even baseline requirements for inclusion in a criminal intelligence database and was included in clear violation of 28 CFR Part 23.

So what does any of this have to do with police in public schools? Quite a lot as it turns out. All of the "gang packets" that I reviewed for 28 CFR Part 23 compliance contained a substantial number of "gang member verification" documents that were submitted by the Boston School Police. These included so-called "intelligence reports" alleging gang membership as a fait accompli, without any evidence or substantiation of anything approaching reasonable suspicion or even criminal predicate. The BPD uses a "point-based verification system" to verify gang membership and 10 "points" results in an individual's verification as a gang member. Being "named in documents as a (sic) associate/member" counts for 8 points. Having "contact with a known gang associate" counts for 2 points. It's not a high bar toward verification. The Boston School Police "intelligence reports" were naming dozens (if not hundreds) of BPS students as gang members simply by seeing them in the company of other students who they believed were gang members.

BPD's BRIC accepted the Boston School Police documents and entered them into the Gang Assessment Database without review, oversight, or analysis. It's unclear whether the school police even had the legal authority to prepare and submit these reports to the BPD. The Boston School Police even prepared reports documenting their stopping and frisking BPS students in parks and neighborhood locations in East Boston that were nowhere near school buildings or grounds, in clear violation of BPS policy and their limited and restricted law enforcement authority. For some of the students named in documents by the school police, the consequences were catastrophic: What A Boston Student's Deportation Reveals About School Police And Gang Intelligence.

As a result of this blatant, egregious, and heavy-handed abuse of authority, the Boston School Police were abolished in 2021 and replaced with "safety specialists." Recently, four Boston City Council members (all white, representing South Boston and Dorchester) sent a letter to the BPS Superintendent stating that "we need School Police to be reinstated into our school buildings for the safety of our students, our staff, and all of our Boston Public School families."

Research on police in schools consistently shows that (1) they make schools less safe, (2) student code of conduct violations become criminalized, (3) children of color are disproportionally arrested, so resurrecting bad policy will not have the outcomes envisioned by backwards thinking politicians. The police have no place in public schools.

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