“Safety and Security” in Boston Schools: A History of Police and Repression

tags: racism, education, policing

Matt Kautz is a PhD candidate at Teachers' College, Columbia University. His dissertation research addresses the use of exclusionary discipline during Boston’s school desegregation era, and Boston-affiliated readers: he’s looking for people with experience in the district (as students, teachers, admins) to do oral history interviews about that time period- feel free to reach out via email mk3891@tc.columbia.edu.


Calls to defund the police after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd renewed efforts to remove police from schools. (As of this writing, it’s been 159 days since Breonna Taylor’s murderer and no one has been arrested.) While some school districts have terminated their relationship with local police departments, many have not. Given that a significant body of research has demonstrated that police interactions with young people inflict lasting traumadisrupt academic learning, and increase chances of incarceration, what role do police have in schools? (For a deep analysis of present day connections between law enforcement and schools, see Carla SheddUnequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice.)

By looking at the historical development of police in Boston’s schools in the latter half of the twentieth century, we can see what led to the police occupation of schools. Indeed, Boston’s history illuminates how the racialization of crime and disorder in schools led to a punitive school system that disproportionately suspends and arrests Black students.

Part 1 – Criminalizing Dissent: 1963-1968

“There is segregation in our Boston public school system . . . we are here because the clamor from the community is too anxious to be ignored, the dissatisfaction and complaints too genuine and deep-seated to pass over lightly . . . the injustices present in our school system hurt our pride, rob us of our dignity, and produce results which are injurious not only to our future but to those of the city, state and nation.”

Ruth Batson, June 11, 1963 (Boston School Committee Meeting

On June 11, 1963, the NAACP’s education committee charged the Boston School Committee (BSC) with maintaining “de facto” segregated schools. The BSC, led by Louise Day Hicks, denounced the NAACP’s statement identifying segregation in the district and its deleterious effects, then ended the meeting. Soon after the Committee dismissed these claims, the Rev. James Breeden and other community leaders organized a “stay out for freedom” protest in less than a week. On June 18, more than 8,000 students stayed out of school with more than 50 percent of all Black junior and senior high school students taking part.

Parallel to this movement for justice was the BSC’s efforts to criminalize the protest and detain its participants. Four of the Committee’s five members launched a media campaign to sow fears about a violent demonstration. BSC members and the district’s superintendent painted the protest and its participants as unlawful and dangerous. Furthermore, Judge John Connelly of the Boston Juvenile Court took out ads in the Boston Globe threatening legal consequences for the 500 children under his jurisdiction if they participated in the stay out. He also warned parents and organizers that contributing to the delinquency of a minor could incur fines and lead to imprisonment. The Committee even tried to pressure Edward Brooke, the state’s Attorney General, to pursue incarceration for the stay outs’ participants. In a symbolic gesture that captured the allegiances of the city’s law enforcement apparatus and heightened fears of violent demonstrations, Hicks maintained a police guard.

To urge children to disregard the law by staying out of schools is terribly wrong . . . Our schools, our churches, our public officials preach obedience to law, yet here we have our Negro children being encouraged to flout this law.”

Louise Day Hicks, Chairwoman of the Boston School Committee

Thus, in the lead up to the protest, the image of two different worlds emerged – one created by the protesters and one imagined by the Boston School Committee. While the BSC tried to present the upcoming demonstration as violent, the stay out organizers made clear the importance of the nonviolent demonstration as “the start of the Northern Freedom Movement.” The Rev. Breeden told the Globe, “This [was] the start of a process of involving students and parents in the making of democracy.” Organizers set up Freedom Schools throughout Roxbury that engaged students in lessons on Black history, civil disobedience, and American democracy. For those participating, the stay out was a peaceful way to recognize segregation and its impact on the city as well as politically mobilize Boston’s Black community, including its young people.

Read entire article at School Diversity Notebook

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