Councilors, BPS officials at odds over sexual misconduct statistics
Quartet of councilors allege 744 sexual assaults in '21-'22 school year
During an Oct. 27 City Council hearing on violence in the Boston Public Schools, Councilors Michael Flaherty, Erin Murphy and Ed Flynn questioned BPS officials on increased reports of violence in the schools.
When Flaherty posed a question about what he said were 740 incidents of “sexual assault” in the 2021-2022 school year, BPS officials pushed back.
“I think we want to just take the opportunity to distinguish between sexual assault and what we call sexual misconduct,” BPS Superintendent Mary Skipper responded.
“It’s very different than sexual assault,” said Jodie Elgee, BPS’ director of bullying prevention and intervention, explaining that misconduct includes things such as use of inappropriate language or kindergarteners engaging in inappropriate touching.
Skipper’s and Elgee’s testimony during the Oct. 27 hearing appeared to land on deaf ears. Earlier this month, Murphy penned a letter, co-signed by Flaherty, Flynn and Councilor Frank Baker, alleging that there were 744 sexual assaults in BPS schools and calling for police officers and metal detectors in schools.
Murphy acknowledged that there are a range of behaviors captured in the BPS data, but she told the Banner they were all some form of assault.
“I’m in no way trying to make this bigger than it is,” she said. “I think we’re in a really bad place with our school system.”
Murphy cited a 2022 state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education report on Boston Public Schools that found, in part, that the district’s system for managing, responding to and resolving complaints “does not ensure a safe environment for all students.”
While incidents of violence and bullying have increased in and around BPS schools in the time since students returned from remote learning in the 2020 school year, the high number of sexual misconduct reports stems partly from a Sept. 9, 2021 directive, Superintendent Circular EQT-03, which mandates that school staff report all sexual misconduct, including inappropriate jokes, references to a student’s body or sexual orientation, or sexual advances.
Coming on the heels of a rash of unreported sexual assaults that led to the closing of the Mission Hill School, the Sept. 9, 2021 directive led to increased reporting of incidents, said a teacher at the Lyndon K–8 School, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“A kindergartener making a sexually lewd comment — that’s considered misconduct, even though you’re talking about kids who can’t even have sex,” the teacher said.
While such incidents in the past may have resulted in a phone call to parents, they are now reported to the BPS central office.
A spokesperson for BPS said that sexual assaults — which can range from groping or unwanted touching to rape — are referred to the Boston Police Department and the state Department of Children and Families. BPS does not ultimately determine whether such incidents legally constitute assault and does not keep statistics on such incidents. The Boston Police Department in 2021 reported 233 instances of rape or attempted rape citywide. Any such incidents that happened in BPS schools would be part of that number.
While Skipper and the other BPS officials present at the Oct. 27 hearing gave a detailed explanation of their reporting and stated that the statistic Flaherty quoted did not apply to sexual assaults, Murphy has continued to refer to the BPS reports of sexual misconduct as “sexual assaults” as recently as last Friday, when she appeared on a GBH News Talking Politics segment.
“Sexual assaults were up around 60% over last year,” Murphy asserted, apparently referring to statistics BPS refers to as “student-on-student sexual misconduct.”
Murphy, Flaherty, Flynn and Baker have sparked controversy with their recent call for police officers in schools. Although that call is supported by the Boston Police Patrolman’s Union, juvenile justice advocates cite research that shows that police officers deployed in schools do not deter crime and are more likely to arrest students for non-criminal misconduct.
Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang, whose members passed a resolution in 2020 opposing more police in schools, said Murphy’s mischaracterization of the BPS sexual misconduct statistics is concerning.
“If she knew the context of that data, it’s concerning that she’s using the statistic in a way that’s not representative of what is actually being reported or what the actual definition encompasses,” Tang said. “It’s misleading and problematic and becomes a distraction from research-based solutions from violence prevention experts that are known to address safety for our students.”