“Safety and Security” in Boston Schools: A History of Police and Repression, Part 1

In the discussion about policing following George Floyd’s murder, we’ve learned (or been reminded) that contemporary policing has its roots in the slave patrols of the early 1800’s. It turns out there’s a sort of analogy with schools: instead of maintaining safety, school policing likewise began as an effort to criminalize people of color who sought a kind of freedom. Described in this series of posts, that story was especially true in Boston, as Black students protested against the city’s segregated school system.

Even as someone based in Boston, I was fascinated to learn some of the history here, first in an email conversation with Matt Kautz, the author of this series, and later in his appearance on a recent episode of the Have you Heard podcast. Matt is a graduate student at Columbia University’s Teachers’ College, and his advisor is Ansley T. Erickson, author of Making the Unequal Metropolis, whose work (discussed in an earlier post) is likely familiar to readers and is highly recommended to those who are not familiar. Matt is doing his dissertation research on 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.

The Have you Heard episode features Matt alongside scholars of school policing in other cities- Judith Kafka (LA) and Louis Mercer (Chicago). This series is sort of a companion to that, which goes into more detail on Boston’s history. Since there’s a lot going on these days, we split it up into 3 parts:  

Each post contains troubling (though not surprising) history and useful links for learning more. And, in each, you can see historical antecedents to contemporary school policing issues described in earlier posts, especially Boston’s murky relationship with ICE, the current movement for #PoliceFreeSchools in Springfield, MA, and the murder of Antwon Rose outside of Pittsburgh in 2018, as well as the research on aggressive school discipline and its relationship with school segregation.   

“Safety and Security” in Boston Schools: A History of Police and Repression, by Matt Kautz (Teachers’ College at Columbia University)

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 trauma, disrupt 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 Shedd, Unequal 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.

Police officers arrest a man during the third night of riots in Boston’s Roxbury area. Source: Getty Images

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.

The peaceful demonstration validated the organizers’ vision for participatory democracy and proved that Hicks’ claims of impending violence were only fiction. Unsurprising to those affiliated with the stay out, but in direct contradiction to Hicks’ fear mongering, there was not a single instance of violence or disorder during the day long demonstration. Of course, this reality did not stop the Committee from labeling the stay out a “lawless” demonstration. The district’s superintendent echoed these sentiments when he declared the protest a failure because “many of those who refrained from going to school were white children whose parents kept them home rather than risk trouble.” In truth, if families felt unsafe sending their children to school, it was more likely a product of the BSC’s unfounded prophecies of violence. Even in their failure to stop the protest, the Committee effectively wedded together the rhetoric of law and order with segregated schools and racial inequality.

St. Mark’s Freedom School Stay-Out, February 26, 1964. Source: Northeastern University Library

The BSC continued to deploy this framing as Black activists, including middle and high school students, persisted in demonstrations against segregated schooling. When Tom Atkins and others staged a sit-in at the Committee’s office in the summer of 1963, the BSC ordered police stationed throughout the building. When activists organized a second stay out in the winter of 1964, the Committee again criminalized the peaceful protest and weaponized the city’s law enforcement apparatus against it.

Between 1965 and 1968, racist dog whistles of law and order took more militant and violent forms. Boston patrolmen founded the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association (BPPA) in 1965 as a response to civil rights demonstrators’ denouncement of their brutality. In the patrolmen’s eyes, City Hall thrust them into “a hostile and dangerous environment” by placing them in Roxbury, then incapacitated them by entering a “collusive relationship with Negro leaders to thwart law and order” while ordering patrolmen to stop “field practices that were alienating black citizens.” Thus, the BPPA started as a means to provide free legal counsel to any member accused of brutality or misconduct because civil rights demonstrators always “targeted” police. In later years, this animosity continued as the BPPA openly supported and donated to anti-desegregation groups like ROAR (Restore Our Alienated Rights).

Police right a car overturned by rioters at corner of Washington and Northampton Streets in Boston on June 4, 1967. (Photo by Ollie Noonan Jr./The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In the spring of 1968, the BSC began deploying this hostile police force in predominantly Black schools with increasing regularity. When young people broke windows at the Jeremiah Burke school following the assassination of Dr. King, the Committee stationed police at the school. Then, in the fall of 1968, when the BSC refused to work with parents of students at the Gibson school in Dorchester, community members set up a “liberation school” as a form of protest. In response, the Committee deployed police officers in and around the elementary school for almost two weeks in what community members called a “police occupation.”

Part 2, next week, will look at the years leading up to Boston’s 1974 school desegregation order, focusing on a major conflict between protesters and police after two students were suspended from English High School for wearing African dashikis.

2 thoughts on ““Safety and Security” in Boston Schools: A History of Police and Repression, Part 1

  1. Pingback: “Safety and Security” in Boston Schools: A History of Police and Repression, Part 2 | School Diversity Notebook

  2. Pingback: “Safety and Security” in Boston Schools: A History of Police and Repression, Part 3 | School Diversity Notebook

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