The Harvard Crimson

The State of Surveillance in Boston Public Schools

Over the past two years, legal changes have shifted the landscape of policing in Massachusetts. But advocates have yet to see whether the reforms will be enough to disrupt the decades-old, entrenched systems of policing and surveillance they are meant to address — a system that takes for granted that certain children should be seen as threats.
By Cat D. Hyeon

The State of Surveillance in Boston Public Schools

Over the past two years, legal changes have shifted the landscape of policing in Massachusetts. But advocates have yet to see whether the reforms will be enough to disrupt the decades-old, entrenched systems of policing and surveillance they are meant to address — a system that takes for granted that certain children should be seen as threats.
By Rebecca E.J. Cadenhead

The Boston Regional Intelligence Center is housed within the Boston Police Department’s headquarters, a boxy, four-story structure made of glass and concrete wedged between two city parks. It was established in 2005, the height of the War on Terror, to keep Boston safe from foreign enemies. The BRIC is a “fusion center,” a site of information sharing between local and federal law enforcement, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In essence, the BRIC is a magnifying glass — through it, what’s observed by a city cop can also be observed by numerous federal officers.

The BRIC is also something of a black box. Its unit has established a system of thousands of cameras throughout the Boston area, which officers can use alongside video analytics software to track specific cars and people. These cameras operate 24/7, but their exact purpose remains unspecified; they are simply there to identify threats. The BRIC also operates several databases containing the private information of thousands of Boston residents, some of whom were not accused of criminal offenses; they were simply identified as threats.

In November 2015, a 17-year-old student at East Boston High School, who has been publicly referred to as “Orlando,” was found to be a threat. The year before, Orlando had immigrated to the United States from El Salvador, alone and without documentation, in search of his father. According to a later report, he and another student had “attempted to start a fight” in the school cafeteria, “but were unsuccessful.” He was subsequently identified via security camera footage by a school police officer, who had also heard rumors that he might be in a gang. The officer wrote up a school incident report about the episode, noting in the last line that, “this incident will also be sent to the BRIC.”

Orlando didn’t realize that the BRIC had his information until nine months later, shortly after he turned 18, when he was arrested by ICE officials. They found him at his father’s home and took him to an immigration detention center, a facility that looks like a prison but whose inhabitants, because they are not citizens, have even fewer rights. Immigrants can be kept in detention indefinitely and without bond; Orlando waited there for over a year. When he finally got to immigration court, lawyers for the Department of Homeland Security made their case: Orlando should be deported because he was a member of MS-13, a federally-identified gang.

Their evidence against Orlando came from a file in a BRIC database that collects information about suspected gang members. Orlando’s file included the school incident report and pictures of him wearing a Chicago Bulls hat, which officials had obtained from his Facebook (the Bulls, aside from being a popular sports team, share a symbol — bull horns — with MS-13). It did not include any alleged criminal offenses.

Though Orlando and his lawyer maintain that he was never a gang member, he eventually agreed to his own deportation — as reported by WBUR, after being detained for so long, he was too depressed to continue fighting the case against him.

East Boston High School, where the student known as Orlando attended before being deported in part due to surveillance information collected on him while in school.
East Boston High School, where the student known as Orlando attended before being deported in part due to surveillance information collected on him while in school. By Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Away from the spotlight, there were other Orlandos. Between 2016 and 2018, immigration attorneys around Boston noticed a surge in cases where DHS relied on the BRIC gang database to deport their clients. Many had been identified as gang members when they were younger than 18, often through incidents that occurred at school.

Information in the gang database acquired from Boston public schools includes — as in Orlando’s situation — school incident reports, which document misbehavior in school or well-defined criminal activity. It also contains intelligence reports filed by Boston School Police, which document any “activity that is documented for intelligence gathering purposes or for the sole purpose of reporting observations.” This activity can include where a student is seen, who students are seen with, or what students are wearing, on or off campus.

Reports about adolescents in the BRIC gang database also include those filed by BPD officers, who usually write reports about people they stop, and sometimes about those whom they merely observe. Some Boston residents, typically young men of color, report that they have been consistently stopped by BPD officers from their early teens on.

The federal rule dictating how fusion centers like the BRIC function stipulates that they can collect information about someone “only if there is reasonable suspicion that the individual is involved in criminal conduct” and the information is “relevant” to that criminal activity. Lawyers and advocates have argued that many of the files entered into the BRIC do not meet this standard.

In 2019, WBUR reported that BPD officers and ICE officials had been communicating extensively via email about specific undocumented immigrants in Boston, often with the intention of finding civil immigration violations for which the resident could then be deported.

Recent public records requests filed by immigrant and civil rights organizations reveal that school police officers in Boston engaged in a similar pattern of behavior. Before recent changes, school reports were supposed to be sent up a bureaucratic chain of command before reaching law enforcement. But, as suggested by Orlando’s case, communications between school police officers and officials from the BRIC were often much more direct. Lawyers say hundreds of documents yielded from their organizations’ public records requests show that officers directly emailed officials from the BRIC and from ICE on specific students of interest. A Boston Public Schools spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but school officials have in the past repeatedly stated they do not share information with federal authorities.

Over the past two years, the landscape of policing in Massachusetts has changed. Boston School Police, who are now only referred to as employees in the Office of Safety Services, lost their police powers under Massachusetts’s 2020 Police Reform Act. They are no longer uniformed, no longer have squad cars, and can no longer arrest students or file intelligence reports. The reports they can file are limited to alleged criminal offenses, medical emergencies, and missing students; they cannot include information like citizenship or ethnicity. Meanwhile, Boston’s Trust Act, updated in December 2019, limits the information law enforcement can share with ICE. An amendment to BPD’s rules governing its gang database now raises the bar for the quality of information needed to establish gang membership.

Advocates have welcomed these changes. Still, some are waiting for Boston to make concrete plans for better-funded social services and avenues toward restorative justice. They have yet to see whether the reforms passed will be enough to disrupt the decades-old, entrenched systems of policing and surveillance they are meant to address — a system that takes for granted that certain children should be seen as threats.

‘The White Police in Roxbury’

In 1974, the Boston School Committee, the governing body of Boston Public Schools, began preparing for an invasion. Months earlier, federal District Judge W. Arthur Garrity had blown up the Boston school system. He ordered the schools to desegregate; as he wrote at the time, the city “must eliminate all vestiges of the dual system ‘root and branch.’”

For decades, Boston had had a significant Black population. In the first half of the 20th century, millions of Black refugees from the South, fleeing racial violence, flocked to the North. There was a train line connecting Florida, the Carolinas, and Virginia to Northeastern cities. Over five decades, 50,000 stayed on the line until Boston. The city was likely far from what they’d imagined. They were forced into segregated communities and denied the same access to public resources and schools as white residents. Brown v. Board came and went in Boston; Black residents who protested de-facto school segregation and poor educational conditions were violently cracked down on by the Boston Police Department.

In September of 1968, BPD began a two-week occupation of the Gibson School, an elementary school in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Roxbury, after a group of parents from the school complained to the School Committee that the Boston School District was providing their children with an inferior education. In response, the School Committee sent in the police.

That year, BPD officers were deployed all around Roxbury to suppress Black students and parents protesting the quality of their schools. On Sept. 26, after hundreds of Black students held a rally to demand equality, BPD broke up the crowd by beating protestors with nightsticks. These officers removed their badges so that they couldn’t be identified. A Black Boston high schooler at the time told the Boston Globe, “If you want a bloodbath in Boston, keep the white police in Roxbury.”

For years, the School Committee had operated under the premise that Black children, foreign to Boston, should be contained. In 1974, following Garrity’s ruling, the prospect of their entrance into white schools called for a special strategy.

“We need adequate police protection,” remarked a school committee member at a meeting on January 1, 1975 while discussing demands the committee would make of the governor. “Give that to him in a short paragraph and say the burden is too heavy on Boston and the trend will be that Boston will be predominantly black. ‘Now, what are you going to do to help us?’”

A 1975 letter from a white South Carolinian to Boston’s then-mayor Kevin H. White expresses the fears of many white parents at the time: “You will find that as the Negro integrates, so will the rate of crime. You will find your schools almost completely segregated within itself … I don’t envy you and the people of your city in the years ahead.”

Citing potential violence from Black students, White and the school committee deployed half of BPD’s entire police force inside schools in the first year of desegregation; in the second year of desegregation, the figure rose to 70 percent.

In reality, the majority of violence in the first years of school desegregation came from white parents and white police. In October, the National Guard was called in to enforce the desegregation order over white protestors. Inside schools, police disproportionately targeted Black students; in-school suspensions and arrests of Black students, which spiked in the first years of integration, became so severe that a lawsuit was filed against the School Committee to end rampant discrimination against Black students.

This mass deployment of officers was unsustainable; in the late 1970s, a “safety and security” force was deployed inside Boston Public Schools to ease the strain on BPD. By 1982, this force had become Boston School Police. Until summer of 2021, school police officers were Special Police Officers designated under Rule 400a of the BPD, meaning that they were deputized but lacked the training of a full police officer — they needed only 160 hours of training, in comparison to the approximately 800 hours required by a full-time police academy.

Still, Boston School Police possessed many of the same powers as BPD. They could arrest students and file reports. They were uniformed and had squad cars. In at least the first few years of their deployment, they had radios directly connecting them to BPD. Effectively, Boston School Police existed to extend the BPD’s reach inside schools, combating threats from within.

The Gang Database, Root and Branch

A 1979 phone call to the Boston Police begins:

“Caller: On (name) street there is a gang of teenagers playing tag football under these new lights. Can you get them out of here please?
Police operator: Yes, ma’am.
Caller: Thank you.
Police operator: You’re welcome.”

Another starts as follows:

“Caller: There’s five or six kids out here. I wouldn’t say kids. They’re grown-ups. They’re playing out there and they’re making a lot of yelling so we can’t listen to the T.V.”

And a third:

“Caller: Hello, I’m calling from (address). Get these kids off the steps. It’s going wild here.
Police operator: What are they doing?
Caller: These kids are getting wild again, getting lousier.”

In response to each of these calls, BPD dispatched its newly-formed Anti-Gang Patrol. The Anti-Gang Patrol was created in July 1979 to combat a surge in gang violence; a 1982 Boston University Law School report on police treatment of juveniles notes that in 1979, 30 percent of all 911 calls in Boston “involved gang disturbances or activities.”

Here is how Boston law enforcement defines a gang currently:

“A gang is an ongoing organization, association, or group of three (3) or more persons, whether formal or informal, which meets both of the following criteria:
1. Has a common name or common identifying signs or colors or symbols or frequent a specific area or location and may claim it as their territory and
2. Has associates who, individually or collectively, engage in or have engaged in criminal activity which may include incidents of targeted violence perpetrated against rival gang associates.”

This definition has always been broad. From its inception in the late ’70s, fears about gang violence in Boston largely revolved around “disruptive youth gangs,” or groups of kids who didn’t belong to large, formalized gangs. In documents from the ’70s on, “youth gangs” and “gangs” are used interchangeably. As Matt Kautz, a PhD candidate at Columbia University who studies the origins of school police in Boston, put it, “there’s this substitution between what might constitute an organized gang, and what is just a group of young people together.”

That same BU report, describing the actions taken by the Anti-Gang Patrol, notes that, during its first ten days of operation, “the gang unit responded to 1,015 complaints, dispersed 1,258 groups of youths, arrested 166 disorderly youths, and took 131 youths into protective custody for detoxification.” The report does not mention any arrests of adults. The Anti-Gang Patrol was disbanded a few months later, but the BPD’s strategy of targeting “youth gangs” remained.

Most of these youths were Black. Christopher Winship, a sociology professor at Harvard who worked with Boston Police in the ’80s and ’90s to develop community policing strategies, notes that “virtually all gangs in Boston are Black.”

Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, phrases it differently: “The Boston Police Department could classify many different organizations as gangs,” but only seems to do so “when they are made up of predominantly Black and Latino people.” BPD did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding alleged racial profiling of youths in their policing practices.

In 1989, a lawsuit was brought against BPD for a “policy to ‘search on sight’ certain young, black persons in Roxbury.” Documentation of the lawsuit describes that BPD also had “a secret list of ‘known gang members’” of 750 people. People on the list were “searched on sight,” which the lawsuit describes as “a proclamation of martial law in Roxbury for a narrow class of people, young blacks, suspected of membership in a gang or perceived by the police to be in the company of someone thought to be a member.”

A judge in the lawsuit found BPD’s actions to be unconstitutional. But the secret list of “known gang members,” and BPD’s harassment of Black communities in Boston, remained.

By the ’90s, following press attention around BPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics, Boston’s Black community reached a breaking point with BPD. Winship wrote in a 1999 report that, “the Boston Police Department was in desperate need of an overhaul to deal with all the negative publicity.”

As part of its attempt to remedy its relationship with local communities, BPD pledged that it would develop a more targeted strategy. In 1996, BPD developed Operation Ceasefire, “an innovative collaboration that focuses targeted interventions on individuals most likely to become offenders and victims in firearm violence.”

Operation Ceasefire aimed to identify those most likely to commit crimes and divert them before they caused harm. In other words, instead of regarding entire neighborhoods with suspicion, the police would select specific residents for the brunt of their enforcement.

Much of the work of Operation Ceasefire was carried out by the Youth Violence Strike Force, established in 1993 as a unit of police officers focused on “the collaborative use of order maintenance tactics to quickly ‘cool’ any area of the city in which gang firearm violence flares.” Essentially, their purpose was to identify kids who might be gang members.

Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police gang detective and now a professor of sociology at Emmanuel College, joined the Youth Violence Strike Force at its inception. The strike force, like BPD in Roxbury, kept an internal list of names of suspected gang members, which they used to monitor those identified as “problems.” According to Nolan, however, there were no criteria for what constituted a gang member: “It could be, ‘I believe this kid is in a gang because I saw him with some other guy.’”

This information was kept within BPD until the aftermath of 9/11, when the Boston Regional Intelligence Center was founded. From there, Nolan explains, the list formerly kept by BPD developed into a gang database and became sprawling.

This move was supposed to help law enforcement be more efficient. Winship believes the database expedites these processes by telling officers, “‘here’s where you should focus your attention.’”

But there are now thousands of names in a gang database accessible by federal law enforcement, and some of the people in it dispute the allegation that they were ever in or associated with a gang at all.

‘Are You Kevin?’

On a colorless day in February 2018, a Black Boston resident named Keith took an Uber to a barber shop appointment. Exiting the car, he noticed two BPD officers in a black car watching him; as he walked up the street, he started filming from his phone. The video, which he later uploaded to YouTube, begins on a car-lined street framed by steel-gray sky. As the police car comes into view, one of the officers rolls down the window. He looks at Keith through narrowed eyes.

“You’re not Kevin by any chance, are you?” He asks.

“Nah,” says Keith.

“You sure?”

“Of course.”

“What is your name?”

“Why do you want to know my name?”

“You look like someone we’re looking to speak to.”

Keith pans to his face, looking exasperated: “Again, here we go.” The officer continues:

“Where do you live?” “You don’t need to know that.” The officer then asks him a series of similar questions — about his address, occupation, and identity. “It’s noon time on a Thursday, what are you doing?” “What are you doing?” “I’m working.”

Eventually, the video ends as Keith walks away and the officer returns to the car.

Keith didn’t seem surprised that the police would stop him; this seems less reflective of a guilty conscience than statistical reality. In 2019, department data shows that despite comprising a quarter of the city’s population, Black Bostonians made up 69 percent of police stops.

In response to public outcry over Keith’s video, in 2018 BPD spokesperson Michael McCarthy told the Associated Press that the stop happened while officers monitoring the area saw a man they believed to have a weapon. McCarthy assigned both parties blame, adding, “we can take away that the officer needs to behave better and those that are interacting with the police need to behave better” — even as it remains unclear why the police stopped Keith or what, exactly, was wrong with his “behavior.”

Boston Police Department headquarters.
Boston Police Department headquarters. By Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There are other aspects of this incident that, while telling, are likely routine. There is much made about Keith’s name; the officer also asks him for his address. What exactly the officer intended to do with this is unknown, though recording personal information is a typical part of police stops — they are used for Field Interrogation/Observation/Encounter reports, which are records of observations BPD makes of the people they interact with.

FIOEs are supposed to be filed every time a stop occurs, regardless of whether the person stopped is accused of criminal activity. In fact, they’re often not even suspected of criminal activity. According to a 2014 ACLU report on racial disparities in BPD stops, “In three-quarters of all [FIOE] Reports from 2007-2010, the officer’s stated reason for initiating the encounter was simply ‘investigate person.’ But ‘investigate person’ cannot provide a constitutionally permissible reason for stopping or frisking someone.”

FIOEs can even be filed in cases where there is no contact between an officer and the person being surveilled at all. As Crockford, of the ACLU, noted in a 2018 Medium post, officers can make FIOEs based on observations from police cars or across the street that record what someone is doing, “who they’re with, or what they’re wearing.” (In an emailed statement last week, Sgt. Detective John Boyle, a BPD spokesperson, wrote that information entered into the BRIC gang database is determined to indicate “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity, the standard in the federal rule governing fusion centers.)

Something else is striking about Keith’s video: the officers knew the name and general appearance of who they were looking for (though not well enough to avoid confusing him with someone else). “Law enforcement are very aware of their communities that they surveil. They know people by name, they know them by face,” says Valeria Do Vale, lead coordinator of the Student Immigrant Movement, an organization that educates and fights for the rights of immigrant students. Who gets targeted for surveillance isn’t random: they have already been identified by police as warranting observation.

How exactly an officer knows enough to look for a specific person without ever having met them remains unclear. Still, there are known ways in which personal information obtained through an FIOE might become accessible to other officers — one of these ways is via the BRIC gang database.

FIOEs and other field reports have always been the bedrock of the gang database. FIOEs that indicate gang membership or association are entered and assigned points. The points system is outlined in Rule 335 of the Boston Police Department Rules and Regulations. Each “Contact with Known Gang Associate” is 2 points. Having a “Known Group Tattoo or Marking” is 8 points. “Information Developed During Investigation and/or Surveillance” is 5 points. The list goes on.

When an FIOE report about someone is sent to the BRIC to be added to the gang database, a file is created about them. From there, the individual can accrue points as more FIOEs or other forms of evidence are filed: At 6 points, they’re a gang associate, and at 10 points, they’re a gang member. If you live in a predominantly Black or Hispanic neighborhood, earning an entry in the database is not difficult. Public records requests from the ACLU have revealed that as of 2019, of the thousands of people entered into the gang database, 90.2 percent are Black and/or Hispanic, and just 2.3 percent are non-Hispanic whites.

To live in proximity to Black and brown residents, then, is to be in contact with people already identified as gang members and associates. As Mary Holper, the Director of the Immigration Clinic at Boston College Law School, notes, “If you go to school in East Boston or Chelsea, which have a high Latinx population, and you don’t know who gang members are, who are suspected of being gang members, you are highly likely to be seen with them. Per being seen by somebody, it doesn’t take long to get to 10. All it takes is five times. So there you go. You’re a gang member.”

Doyle, the BPD spokesperson, wrote that the BRIC gang database is “a critical tool in the City’s strategy not only for responding to violent criminal activity, but also for supporting at-risk young people, preventing community violence and victimization, and offering participants safe and healthy pathways to a better life.” He wrote that data in the gang database helps target youth outreach, inform prosecutorial decisions, and respond to crime through the “efficient deployment of police resources.”

Through the deployment of police resources, Holper says that her clients are frequently “stopped and frisked, questioned about whether they’re a gang member.” In the 2014 ACLU report, Ivan Richiez, an Afro-Dominican Bostonian, recalls getting stopped by BPD for the first time in 2007, when he was 14 years old. BPD approached Ivan and some friends as they sat on a bench near where they lived, frisked them, and asked them what they were doing, where they lived, and if they were in a gang.

Not all of the evidence in these files comes from FIOE reports alone. A given file could have a variety of information about a given suspect. This can include possession of gang publications, or a self-admission of gang membership. It can also include evidence collected from social media. As Orlando’s case indicates, files frequently include photos of their subjects, which are then viewed by officers who access them.

Someone in the gang database usually has no way of knowing that they’ve been entered into it; police are not required to inform them. While individuals now technically have the ability to request whether they’ve been entered into the gang database, several lawyers have said instructions for how to do so remain unclear; the BRIC privacy and civil liberties policy does not outline a specific mechanism to make such requests.

But if someone is in the gang database, the police know a lot about them, although it’s not clear who has access to it. Elizabeth Badger, a senior attorney at the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation project, has expressed concerns that this information is being disseminated throughout the police department. Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, has noticed that the Black and Hispanic young men that she works with are often stopped by BPD officers who, despite never having met them before, already know who they are — she suspects that this could be because they’ve been put into the gang database.

For these young men, being persistently stopped by the police “makes them feel like they must be doing something wrong,” says Emily Leung, supervising immigration attorney at the Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts. “It makes them become disengaged with school, and they become disengaged with their community.”

In a 2020 Boston City Council Meeting, the BRIC’s director, David N. Carabin, told counselors that the establishment of the BRIC had corresponded with a decrease in crime in Boston (crime rates did fall in Boston, but they also fell almost everywhere else in the country over the same period).

Later, in a 2021 city council meeting, Counselor Julia Mejia asked Carabin if he could quantify the BRIC’s impact on preventing or solving crimes. “A lot of our work goes toward proactive police measures […] We have a lot of success stories, but a lot of proactive police measures are difficult to evaluate,” Carabin responded.

In an article about the meeting published in the Bay State Banner, Crockford said that “I’ve never seen a shred of evidence that the BRIC is making Boston safer. Government agencies are always required to show their work. In this case, people just kind of shrug and say, ‘The police say they need it, so we’re going to provide it.’”

‘This Incident Will Be Sent to the BRIC’

In 2016, 18-year-olds around Boston began disappearing.

Leung got a call early that year from an immigration attorney friend. The friend couldn’t find her client. He had completely vanished. Eventually, she figured out what had happened: Unknown to his friends or family, he had been taken to immigration detention by ICE.

For a decade-and-a-half, Boston had been a receiving ground for refugees from Central America. Conflict and civil war led thousands of undocumented immigrants to travel from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to Boston in the 1990s. From 2014-2015 there was another surge of migrants, mostly trying to escape gang violence. 30 percent of migrants from Central America to the United States are children; half of them are unaccompanied by an adult.

Two years later, immigration attorneys from around Boston noticed that more of their younger clients were being detained. Badger, from the PAIR project, suspects the uptick was in response to two murders in East Boston by MS-13. These clients were of a specific type: they were all Central American migrants, had all recently reached adulthood, were enrolled in public schools in East Boston or Chelsea, and were listed in the BRIC’s gang database.

Badger, Nolan, and others have said that the gang database seems to contain a lot of information that comes directly from Boston School Police. The streets, then, are one site of contact between suspected threats and law enforcement; schools are another.

Boston School Police have filed two kinds of reports that have made it into the BRIC: school incident reports and intelligence reports. While school incident reports document notable incidents at schools, intelligence reports have a much more nebulous purpose. Like FIOEs, they don’t necessarily document alleged criminal actions, but rather the more mundane: what a student was wearing, who the student was with, things that a student may have said.

Leung says some intelligence reports seem unwarranted. “They’re like, ‘So and so student was seen with so and so student in the cafeteria.’ Okay, well, they’re both students in school.”

Not all school police intelligence reports have even been filed inside of schools. In 2017, Boston School Police officers filed an intelligence report after receiving a tip that several students had congregated at an off-campus dog park. It’s unclear how they received this tip, or from whom — the report mentions an unnamed “resident.” School police officers then traveled to the dog park, where, according to the report, they observed children who they suspected were associated with MS-13. This report was forwarded to an officer who in 2020 was listed as a “Gang Intelligence Lieutenant” for the Boston Public Schools, and it later wound up in the BRIC’s gang database.

It’s not clear why either of these kinds of reports were sent to the gang database. Nolan, the sociologist and former officer in the Youth Violence Strike Force, questions why any school police reports would be relevant to the gang database. “They have no training in how to identify gang members,” he says. “So there’s no kind of expertise that resides within the Boston School Police Department as it pertains to gang membership.”

Regardless, attorneys who have seen the information entered in the gang database say that schools had a direct role in implicating their clients. Badger says that of her clients in the gang database, all were initially entered when they were younger than 18 — many from reports made by school police.

Badger says that there were officers from East Boston High School “who wanted to label young [Central Americans] as gang-affiliated.” Of her clients, school police had noted fights, leaving school early, or even “someone else looking at someone the wrong way.”

Badger and other attorneys interviewed believe that Boston School Police turned perhaps questionable, though not criminal, behavior of teenagers into signs of gang membership. Sarah R. Sherman-Stokes, who represented Orlando, says that even clothing choice was documented by school police. “A lot of teenagers dress the same, because that’s part of being a teenager,” she says. “You want to fit in. Boston Latinx youth have style, and they posture, and they wear Nike Cortez sneakers and it does not mean that they’re members of gangs.”

School police reports appear in the BRIC gang database alongside FIOEs filed by BPD. Leung, the immigration attorney, points out that FIOEs and school intelligence reports document similarly banal activities. The information they record, she wrote in an email, would be insufficient for criminal court — but is still “routinely utilized to support the re-arrest and detention of immigrants.”

Boston Public Schools did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the utility of school police reports in identifying gang membership or about alleged racially motivated policing by safety service employees.

Sherman-Stokes says that Orlando had been detained purely because of evidence against him in the gang database — evidence, she suggests, that was circumstantial at best. “He had never been arrested or charged or convicted of any crime,” she says. In order to make the case that he was a member of MS-13, “They pulled things off of his Facebook page, like where he was wearing a [Chicago] Bulls hat. And then in the hearing, the [DHS] attorney said, ‘You’ll see, your honor, that he’s wearing a Bulls hat. And everyone knows that Michael Jordan played for the Bulls and he was number 13.’ But he wasn’t. He was number 23. Like, what are you talking about?”

What might not meet the bar for criminal prosecution can still be used in immigration proceedings. Violating immigration law is not a criminal offense — therefore, in immigration court, the rules governing what can and cannot be entered into evidence, and the rights of the accused, are much thinner. Undocumented immigrants’ rights to an attorney, to cross-examine witnesses, or even to be physically present at their own trial are routinely not enforced.

Immigration attorneys say that law enforcement sometimes assumes their clients are gang members, even when there isn’t any evidence against them. Sherman-Stokes recalls a 2015 incident in which she went to the asylum office with a young client from El Salvador, who was wearing what she describes as “an innocuous blue windbreaker that his mother had bought for him.” They were met by a DHS officer, who started “interrogating” him about the jacket: “Why was it that he was wearing blue? He noticed that there was white piping along the jacket, didn’t this child know that blue and white are the colors of MS-13? It was really startling.”

​​The full extent of information sharing between Boston schools and the BRIC remains unknown. As of 2019, 1.7 percent of entries (80 people) in the BRIC’s gang database were of children under 18. Still, this low percentage may be deceiving: Anecdotally, Badger and Leung say legal reforms and leadership changes, along with Orlando’s highly publicized case, led to a decrease in school police reports being sent to the BRIC beginning in 2018. And many who had been previously entered during high school have likely just aged: 19.4 percent of the database is between 18 and 24. Moreover, public records requests from Lawyers for Civil Rights have revealed that at least 135 school incident reports were entered into the BRIC between 2014 and 2017 alone.

In a 2020 interview with WBUR about the incident reports uncovered by Lawyers for Civil Rights, Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius emphasized how the shared reports were from before 2018 and said that Boston Public Schools currently “do not share information with the federal authorities at all.”

Prior to 2020, school incident reports should have been sent to the Boston Public School Department of Safety Services, where a judgment would be made about whether it warranted sharing with BPD. From there, BPD could, at its discretion, send that information to the BRIC.

But records show that individual Boston School Police officers took matters into their own hands. As indicated by the note in Orlando’s file — “this incident will be sent to the BRIC” — at least one officer directly forwarded student information to officials at the BRIC.

That officer didn’t act alone. Badger, in conjunction with lawyers representing four groups — the Center for Law and Education Inc., Kids in Need of Defense, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, and Multicultural Education, Training, and Advocacy Inc. — filed public records requests in 2018 that recently revealed that Boston School Police officers often directly communicated with officials from the BRIC and from ICE. Via email, school police sent federal officials information about students. Federal officials would also ask school police to monitor specific students of interest.

Lena G. Papagiannis, a Boston teacher and member of Unafraid Educators, a committee of the Boston Teachers Union that advocates for immigrant students, read excerpts from some of these emails at a city council meeting.

An email chain, initially from a BRIC official to a school police officer, reads: “Do you have a [redacted] that attends [your school]?” The officer responds, “Okay bro I am checking now and I will let you know.” The official sends the officer a picture, and the officer sends back a profile of a student. The BRIC official forwarded this all to an officer at ICE with a note: “This your guy?”

Another, from an ICE official to a school police officer and a BRIC official, begins: “Do you guys know this [student]?” The Boston School Police officer responds, “Yes sir, he’s a student at [redacted]. We don’t have anything on him yet. Still watching him. This kid has the same address as [redacted].”

A final email, from a BRIC official to multiple ICE agents with the subject “School Police Incident” report, contains a school incident report. It reads: “Note the school police report lists both [students] as self-admitting gang membership. This is gang verification gold.”

There are hundreds of pages of emails from this request. There are also emails that suggest that school police officers were communicating with federal officials via cell phone; the extent of these conversations, which were not public record, are unknown.

This testimony received no news coverage, and the lawyers involved have not yet issued any press releases about it. To protect student privacy, they did not share these documents with me. Badger also says she believes school administrators did not know of these extensive communications between school police officers, BPD, and federal bodies like ICE.

The Boston Public Schools did not respond to multiple requests for comment about these emails. Doyle did not comment on these specific emails but wrote that under the updated Boston Trust Act, the BRIC is prohibited from sharing information about individuals to assist ICE with enforcing civil immigration law (but not for investigations into criminal activity). An ICE spokesperson declined to respond to specific criticisms but wrote that ICE officers in Boston “have previously and do currently fully observe and comply with all local law enforcement protocols.”

Nora B. Paul-Schultz of Unafraid Educators saw the documents and was disturbed by the “casualness of the correspondence” between school police and law enforcement, saying, “Who matters so little that their name can be shared with law enforcement without even a second thought about what the consequences of that might be?”

This treatment of children is indicative of an attitude unique to the United States. Many other nations have a minimum age of criminal responsibility, before which they cannot be prosecuted for a crime. For most of the developed world, this is set at 18. In the U.S. there is no federally mandated minimum age — some states have no minimum age at all. In Massachusetts, it’s 12, the oldest of any state.

“We believe that students have a right to privacy and have a right to adolescence,” Paul-Schultz adds. When their misbehaviors are documented in a report, “the student has already been condemned.”

By the logic of law enforcement, these reports are necessary for public safety. But this may also mean that for certain students, schools have lost their essential function; in a blog post on the ACLU’s website, Holper noted that, “One way to protect [my clients] from being profiled, mislabeled by school police as gang members, and deported would be to advise them to stop attending school.”

As Papagiannis asks: “Safety for who, and safety from who?”

A System in Flux

As of the 2021-2022 school year, the Boston School Police no longer exists. In 2020, in the wake of protests for racial justice, Massachusetts passed a police reform act eliminating “special police officers,” which includes Boston School Police. They are now exclusively referred to as Safety Service employees. Though the staff remains the same (the former “gang intelligence lieutenant” is now listed as a “Day Shift Supervisor/Lead Specialist”), they will no longer have police powers.

Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey signs a city-wide ordinance to increase transparency of police use of surveillance technologies in October.
Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey signs a city-wide ordinance to increase transparency of police use of surveillance technologies in October. By Courtesy of Valeria do Vale

As previously stated, Safety Service employees can no longer file intelligence reports, and are limited in what they can file incident reports about. Parents must be notified when a BPD report or school safety report is made, and only the Chief and Deputy Chief of Safety Services can choose to share reports with the liaison from the BPD school unit. The new regulations, however, do not prohibit the preparation of an Incident Report based on a Safety Services employee’s personal knowledge or observations, so long as the knowledge is “related to” the incident in question.

Theoretically, the gang database itself has also changed. In response to public outcry, Rule 335, which governs the gang database’s usage, has been amended. FIOEs can no longer be used as the sole basis for an allegation of gang membership. Individuals who have no recorded recent activity will be “purged” from the database. BPD and the BRIC have promised to connect juveniles in the gang database with social services so that they can eventually “purge all juveniles from the gang database and stop the cycle of violence in the city of Boston” (though they will not stop entering juveniles into the gang database in the first place). A person can now also request to be removed from the database, however, Doyle wrote that while several such requests have been submitted to the BPD, “there has only been one occasion where corrections were required as a result of a redress request.”

Some advocates have expressed cautious optimism about these developments, though not everybody is as hopeful. “I can see things going back to the bad old days,” says Tom Nolan. “It’s the same agencies, the same people. They dress them up differently, but it’s old wine in new bottles.”

— Associate magazine editor Rebecca E. J. Cadenhead can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ibuprofenaddict.

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