Police, metal detectors wrong answer in Boston Public Schools

Survey showing parental support reaches ‘misguided conclusion’

RECENT  headlines have focused on a survey conducted by the MassINC Polling Group about school safety in Boston Public Schools. Out of the more than 800 families surveyed, 76 percent of parents said they support metal detectors in school and 75 percent said they favor returning police officers to schools. Some have interpreted the survey to signal overwhelming support from parents for police officers and metal detectors in schools. This is a misguided conclusion.

The survey is faulty and misleading. The poll only presented metal detectors and school police, two flawed approaches that don’t improve school safety, as solutions to school safety concerns. This ignores the broad and diverse range of evidence-based, school safety solutions that center students’ needs and the root causes of misbehavior, such as restorative justice, collaborative problem solving, and mental health services. Not only was this a missed opportunity to inform parents about potential alternatives to police officers and metal detectors in schools, but it deprived parents of a real opportunity to explore and weigh-in on the full scope of holistic safety approaches. After all, how can you pick an option you aren’t offered?

Additionally, Boston Public Schools has significant linguistic diversity, typically promoting content for parents in nine major languages. Despite this, the poll was only offered in English and Spanish, which likely limited the input of families with valuable perspectives to contribute.

Police officers and metal detectors pose significant risk of harm to students — especially Black and Brown students whom research shows are disproportionately excluded and arrested in schools with metal detectors and police officers. When the wrong questions are posed, you are bound to get the wrong answers.

The survey presents school policing as one of the only options to improve school safety, when research shows that stationing police in schools does not make schools safer. In a meta-analysis of 12 studies looking at police on campus, none of these studies showed that police made schools safer.

When police are stationed in schools, they frequently drift into enforcing school rules rather than the law. This results in students being arrested for behaviors that have traditionally been handled as school disciplinary matters or that could be addressed by alternative means. Students of color with disabilities are particularly at risk when police are placed in schools, finding themselves criminalized for behaviors that may be a manifestation of their disability. Schools with police report 3.5 times more student arrests than schools without them, showing a pattern of criminalization without meaningful improvements in safety.  

Citizens for Juvenile Justice’s report, “Metal Detectors in Schools: Security Theater, Not Safer Schools,” reviewed research on the effect of metal detectors — the other flawed policy included in the survey — on students. Multiple studies show that implementing metal detectors fails to reduce violence or make schools safer while posing harmful impacts to students by producing negative social, psychological, and developmental outcomes. In fact, national school safety experts call these types of approaches “security theater” in that they provide “an emotional security blanket” while they do not make a significant difference in school safety.

The MassINC Polling Group survey limited the discussion on school safety by failing to include evidence-based and proven approaches to school safety that have been effectively implemented in cities across the country. Restorative justice practices emphasize the rehabilitation of students with challenging behaviors through conflict resolution, problem-solving, meaningful reflection, and reconciliation with those who are harmed and the community at large.

Research shows that this approach is successful at reducing student misconduct, reducing suspensions and expulsions, as well as improving school climate and academic performance. For example, when Denver Public Schools implemented restorative justice practices it resulted in a 44 percent reduction in suspensions and a reduced arrest rate.

Instead of spending millions of taxpayer dollars on flawed approaches like more cops and metal detectors that lack an evidentiary basis for their effectiveness, decision makers should prioritize evidence-based, holistic approaches to school safety that center providing student’s support and addressing the root causes of misbehavior in a way that is preventative and that improves overall climate in Boston’s schools.

Meet the Author

Jakira Rogers

Program director, Massachusetts Advocates for Children
Meet the Author

Erin Stewart

Skadden Fellow, Citizens for Juvenile Justice
Meet the Author

Andrew King

Postdoctoral associate, Boston University Center for Antiracist Research
Jakira Rogers is a program director for Massachusetts Advocates for Children’s racial equity and access program. Erin Stewart is a Skadden Fellow at Citizens for Juvenile Justice in the school to prison pipeline project. Andrew King is a postdoctoral associate at the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research where he coordinates the Massachusetts racial policy tracker.

Note: The MassINC Polling Group is a for-profit subsidiary of MassINC, which is also the corporate parent of CommonWealth.