Lawsuits seek records on info-sharing with feds

Advocates suspect Boston schools, police providing student data

STUDENT ADVOCACY GROUPS filed lawsuits on Thursday against the Boston Public Schools and the Boston Police Department seeking records that would shed light on how the two city agencies share information on students with federal law enforcement agencies.

The student advocacy groups, which say they have been unable to get the information they want via public records requests or an earlier lawsuit, are attempting to find out whether city agencies are complying with ordinances barring them from sharing student information with the federal agencies. An earlier incident, which resulted in the deportation of a student to El Salvador, raised questions about how much information sharing was going on.

“Until we see records showing otherwise, we have to assume the practice continues. We need the records to be able to reassure students and parents that they are safe,” said Janelle Dempsey, an attorney for Lawyers for Civil Rights, one of the three groups that filed the lawsuits in Suffolk Superior Court.

The other two groups are the Center for Law and Education, a nonprofit group seeking to improve education for low-income children, and Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy, which works to improve educational opportunities for immigrant children.

The organizations are seeking six years of gang intelligence documents, field interrogation files, and Boston Police Department school incident reports generated by Boston Public School employees and employees of the police department and possibly shared with agents at the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

School incident reports are fed into a database of school children suspected of gang affiliation as a result of who they affiliate with at school, what clothes they wear, and their interactions with school authorities.

An incident in 2017 spurred interest in the information-sharing relationship between Boston and federal agencies. At that time, an East Boston High School student was deported to El Salvador after being accused of being an MS-13 gang member. A school report on the student made it to the BRIC gang database and into the hands of immigration enforcement.

Sarah Sherman-Stokes, an attorney for the high school student, said he had no gang ties and moved to the US in 2014 to be with family.

Advocacy groups began asking for public records related to the gang database and protocols for information sharing with law enforcement in 2017, but ended up having to file suit for them.

At the time, city officials claimed the East Boston incident was isolated. The documents produced as a result of the lawsuit, however, revealed a different picture.

Boston Public Schools turned over 135 incident reports filed from 2014 to 2019 that the district shared with the regional intelligence center, which is housed within the Boston Police Department. In turn, federal immigration authorities have access to those records.

Neither the Boston Police Department nor the Boston Public Schools would comment on the latest lawsuits.

Boston has a citywide ordinance called the Trust Act, enacted in 2014 and revised in 2019, that is supposed to limit the situations in which Boston Police share information with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The lawsuits were filed as Beacon Hill debates a massive police reform bill, which restricts the type of information school officials can share with federal law enforcement agencies, including immigration status, religion, ethnicity, neighborhood of residence, and suspected gang affiliations, unless the information is related to a specific incident.

During debate on the Senate version of the bill, an amendment was proposed by Sen. Pat Jehlen of Somerville that would restrict information sharing. Republican Sen. Dean Tran of Fitchburg spoke out against the amendment, saying,” This amendment provides opportunity for gangs to flourish and recruit and to bully those students into joining because there are no communication between schools and law enforcement.” The measure passed 27-12.