As the country grapples with police reform, many juvenile justice advocates in Massachusetts are questioning whether officers belong in schools.
We know people of color disproportionately come into contact with the criminal justice system at a young age and for minor offenses, and some argue school police may play a role in the criminalization of students. But, Matt Cregor, a staff attorney with the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, admits it is hard to know for sure.
"If we're not collecting that kind of data, we really don't know what police are doing in our schools," said Cregor.
"If we're not collecting that kind of data, we really don't know what police are doing in our schools."Matt Cregor
Actually, Massachusetts is collecting that data, as a result of the 2018 criminal justice reform bill. But even with a year of data collection, there is little clarity around the impact of school police officers.
'We Know That There Is Data Missing'
In July, Cregor teamed up with Citizens for Juvenile Justice to analyze school policing data collected during the 2018-2019 academic year, the first year districts were mandated by law to report school-based arrests to the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
By Cregor's analysis, only 11% of districts statewide reported any arrests.
"When Springfield, Lowell and Worcester are all reporting zeros, along with 50 other districts with more than 3,000 students, we know that there is data missing," he said.
Boston Public Schools, the largest district in the state with more than 50,000 students, reported only four school-based arrests to DESE during the 2018-2019 academic year.
But BPS told WBUR there were 114 school arrests in that year.
Similarly, Springfield Public Schools — which reported zero arrests to the state — told WBUR there were 75 school-based arrests in the 2018-2019 school year.
So, what accounts for these significant discrepancies?
Melissa Threadgill is with the state's Office of the Child Advocate and is helping to analyze the school-based arrest data. She said the first year of data collection is generally an imperfect process.
"What we hypothesize is that there's confusion about who's in charge of collecting this data, there's sort of some confusion about how it is therefore supposed to get to DESE and we feel that there may be some confusion about definition," she said.
Both Boston and Springfield school districts told WBUR they were working on fine tuning reporting platforms to more accurately reflect arrest numbers moving forward.
'We're ... Not Providing Them A Service, We're Providing Them A Criminal Record'
The state’s 2018 criminal justice reform act requires school districts and police chiefs come to an agreement around police presence in schools and the reporting of things like arrests.
But, based on the spotty data collected during the first year of reporting, it appears more direction is needed.
State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz was instrumental in passing the 2018 legislation and believes there's room for improvement.
"I would like to hear some input from both schools and police about their differential capacity to be the ultimate responsible party for these reports," she said. "I wouldn't be surprised if both of them said, you know, 'not us.' Ultimately, if we have to make a decision and say, 'it's you,' or, 'it's you,' that's what we got to do."
But in the meantime, attorneys like Debbie and Cristina Freitas worry the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline" remains intact.
The twin sisters specialize in child welfare and juvenile justice matters, working mostly in Lowell. That district reported zero school-based arrests in the 2018-2019 academic year, according to DESE.
Cristina Freitas says just by looking at her and her sisters' caseloads, along with other attorneys who represent juveniles in Lowell, it's easy to see the school district's number is way off.
"So, we've been collecting anecdotal data and at this point we're at over six times the number of reported, that we're finding the kids are actually being charged," she said.
The Freitas sisters agree mandated reporting of school-based arrests is a move in the right direction but they argue the current legislation doesn't go far enough.
"A lot of our school policing environment really perpetuates the myth of the court as a service provider," said Debbie Freitas. "And while certainly, you know, the juvenile court comes a little bit closer to that frame, kids essentially get the option of a diversion or an arraignment. So, what we're actually doing is not providing them a service, we're providing them a criminal record."
What Impact Do Police Have In Schools? We Don't Know
The 2018 state legislation also established the Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Board (JJPAD). It's responsible for overseeing the implementation and impact of the reforms.
In its first year report to the state legislature, the board highlighted a significant drop in the use of the juvenile justice system for low-level offenses. But, it also pointed out the ongoing disproportionate presence of youth of color in the juvenile justice system. More than 70% of custodial arrests involved Black and Hispanic or Latino young people.
Maria Mossaides, director of the Office of the Child Advocate, chairs the JJPAD. She says without consistent reporting, it's difficult to measure the impact of police in schools.
"I don't know that we've had the kind of data analysis of how it's operated in Massachusetts to be able to answer that question as to whether [school police] have been an assistance in the schools or as to whether [school police] have kind of added to the childhood trauma," said Mossaides.
And, she says, we likely won't know the answer until we know we have good data.