Though very few know, the long-standing Boston School Police have been phased out this month, losing their arrest powers and most other powers on July 1 due to the state Police Reform Act – and they will now be known as the Office of Safety Services and are forming a new mission over the summer.
The Boston School Police have been in place for several decades, and are a force that is in effect under the Rule 400 process that allows Special Police Officers (SPOs). While they are not armed and were instituted as a mediation group to keep regular Boston Police out of the schools, Boston School Police had arrest powers and could carry handcuffs and produce Police Reports – and also remove those trespassing on school grounds. With little fanfare, all SPOs under the state Police Reform Act lost their police powers on July 1 when the law went into effect and the Boston Police could no longer license them. One of the largest forces to lose their powers were the Boston School Police, but other Rule 400 SPOs that lost their powers were hospital police forces like the Boston Medical Center Police, private companies like Longwood Security, Boston Common Park Rangers and the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) Police, among others.
Few are talking about the changes, which have already been put into place, and current and former SPOs estimated that around 400 officers lost their powers in Boston.
Boston Public Schools (BPS) said it had been working on a plan to implement the Office of Safety Services and to phase out the Boston School Police since May. They said Supt. Brenda Cassellius mentioned it in her report on May 12 and June 16 – and Supt. Cassellius addressed the matter again at the July 14 meeting. However, it has not been well-publicized and it appears parents have not been informed officially of the change yet.
“The Governor’s new law accelerated the work BPS is already doing to reimagine the role of the Office of Safety Services,” it continued. “The ultimate goal of this ongoing work is to promote school safety while cultivating trust in the community, building strong relationships, and placing a greater focus on intervention and restorative justice practices.”
BPS said the Police Reform Act impacted the ability of local police, in this case the Boston Police Department (BPD), to issue police licenses to SPOs like the Boston School Police patrolmen and superior officers. The change in the law removed their authority to make arrests, and write/access police reports. Now, in the event that police are needed, BPS said it will be calling Boston Police to respond instead of the School Police.
Those on the School Police are now known as Safety Services, and they now wear polo shirts and not police uniforms, and soon will no longer have cruisers or carry handcuffs. They also cannot generate or access police reports. BPS said they have been meeting with Safety Services staff over the summer to develop a plan that promotes school safety through relationship building and intervention strategies that are not dependent on officers having police powers. The district also said the relationships built by officers over the years will provide a foundation for the Safety Services to move to their next phase of work, being mentors, coaches and valued members of the school community.
Boston Police Department officials did not wish to comment on the School Police situation or the SPO situation in general.
Ames Stevens is a former Boston School Police officer and the former vice president of their union. He quit the force when the changes came down, and entered the regular Police Academy to become an officer on another force in Boston. Stevens had also worked for Longwood Security as an SPO for many years, and said he wouldn’t have left either job had there not been the changes.
He said the changes in the School Police and for other SPOs were abrupt and he doesn’t agree with them.
“That was our big gripe is that it was done so abruptly and so quickly,” he said. “Parents and staff and families should know and I don’t think they do. They’ve been trying to move away from the police in the schools. There are ways for them to get us certified and retain police powers, but they didn’t want to entertain that because it meant sending us to an academy…It was perfect for them because they were looking for this anyway. This law allowed them to do this quickly and quietly. This was a two-year plan and when the law passed and the date was July 1, it made that two-year plan into a two-month plan.”
Current School Police Union President Ian Maclean said they are left with little to no power, and he said now all they can do is call the Boston Police when something happens and, with BPD being understaffed, hope that they respond. He recalls breaking his leg and hand at English High School in Jamaica Plain when trying to remove a firearm from a young adult that had trespassed from outside, and noted there would be little he could do about that now.
“I took the gun from the kid and basically let him go to remove him,” he said. “I don’t know how that would play out now. We don’t have the authority to do much. We can’t even remove someone trespassing or deal with an external threat, which worries me the most. Even with external threats, we can’t even move people out of the property now. The only thing we can do is call for someone to help. Five minutes go by before a response, if that, and that’s five minutes of people getting their butt kicked or worse…We don’t even have the authority to tell people to move that are sleeping or loitering on school property. It’s a real mistake.”
Stevens said it also undermines the reason the School Police were brought in to the schools many years ago – as a diversionary force that could protect the school and also mediate situations to give kids a break and potentially avoid an unnecessary arrest. Now, he said, the whole idea of mediating situations will be thrown out the door if BPD shows up and has to arrests kids without the understanding or relationships.
“Now, all they can do is call 9-1-1 and hope that the call is prioritized and then the Boston Police come in,” he said. “We had relationships and we handled a lot of situations. The BPD won’t come in with those relationships. Do you really want street cops coming in with guns? That’s the last thing I would have thought…We could keep street cops out of the schools by handling and mediating things ourselves. An arresting officer has discretion and we could keep things in house and maybe not bring charges if we felt it’s not the best thing. Now you don’t have that. If there’s any crime, they have to call 9-1-1.”
At the July 14 School Committee meeting, Cassellius said they are working through the summer to define the new role of the Office of School Safety, and noted that officers look very nice in their new attire. She said the School Safety is participating in the summer programming to begin building new relationships and to begin going in a new direction in securing the schools.