Monday, May 20, 2024

The Albert F. Argenziano School, site of a controversy in 2019 that involved police. (Photo: Stanley Nova via Wikimedia Commons)

A plan to redefine the relationship between Somerville Public Schools and the Somerville Police Department is on hold for renegotiation, interim superintendent Jeff Curley said at a Special Police Subcommittee meeting held Jan. 10.

The plan, proposed by the district last November, would make the removal of school resource officers permanent and implement a school liaison officer program. The SLOs would not be stationed at schools, but would be available for emergency situations. Issues of school discipline would be the responsibility of school administrators. The school community would get to know the officers during structured meetings such as coffee hours, workshops and during extracurricular or athletic activities.

The new model would also establish a complaints process and require the release of discipline and policing data.

School resource officers were removed from Somerville Public Schools a few months after administrators at the Albert F. Argenziano School reported a 6-year-old to police Nov. 12, 2019, on a charge of indecent assault and battery against a friend – bringing national attention to the district and an extended legal conflict. Children under 12 can’t be charged with a crime in Massachusetts, and legal and medical experts suggest the charge of sexual harassment against a first-grader can never be warranted; yet a district press release said filing charges followed its guidance as a mandated reporter, which is “not discretionary.”

Somerville had a school resource officer from the 1980s until 2020, and they were required by state law between 2014 and 2020, according to the subcommittee. The School Committee raised the issue of looking at practice and policies around January 2020. “Then the Covid-19 pandemic happened, followed by a refocusing of attention on race and policing,” meeting minutes say.

Interactions between the police department and schools would be governed by the memorandum of understanding being negotiated by the school district, police department and Mayor’s Office, which would be required to be in place before the school liaison officers begin. It would be based on a model recommended by the state, not on a Middlesex District Attorney model MOU that is currently used, which the district says is outdated.

Currently, 16 different types of incidents from possessing a lighter to assault would involve the police. Under the proposed model, an incident would be reported only if it “poses substantial harm to physical well-being,” if it is “willful, malicious and substantial harm to school property,” or the “taking property of substantial value.”

While the full school liaison officer program will not be implemented until an MOU is agreed upon by the superintendent and chief of police, two liaison officers have been identified who work with youth and families.

“As we continued our discussions with the city and [police] around the MOU, it’s my decision to place that proposal on hold, pending further developments and refinement,” said Curley, the superintendent.

The subcommittee recommended that the full Somerville School Committee adopts a temporary proposal that sees these officers respond in emergency situations. They also recommended that the committee directs the superintendent to develop guidance on how school staff should engage the police before a new MOU is adopted.

These recommendations will not reach the full committee until after another Special Police Subcommittee meeting; one scheduled for Wednesday was canceled when not enough members appeared to make a quorum.

“We often had untrained officers not at all familiar with our students showing up,” Curley said. “And so at least we will have a better sense of the officers likely to respond in emergency situations.”

Sarah Phillips, a School Committee and Special Policing Subcommittee member, is concerned that guidance would not go far enough, and that there would be no way to see how the interim guidance works and no guidance for how to report police interactions with students to the state and federal government. That’s something Massachusetts already performs poorly on, according to the New Bedford Light, a nonprofit news organization.

“I don’t have any faith we’re ever going to get that end-stage MOU in place,” Phillips said. She later said during a phone call that while she was not sure a final version would ever be in place, she would like to see one.

Questions about the subcommittee were referred to Andre Green, chair of the School Committee.He said he would not comment on negotiations, and a message left with him Thursday on other issues was not immediately returned.