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School police raise concerns about equipment, guns, training

Some members of the Boston School Department’s police force believe they might be unprepared to respond to a mass shooting like the one in Newtown, Conn., because they cannot carry guns and lack bulletproof vests and adequate training to defuse such a situation.

School police also could encounter challenges in summoning armed officers from the Boston Police Department because their decade-old radio system prevents them from communicating directly with the city’s police force or Emergency Medical Services, said a lawyer representing some officers.

School police would have to call their own dispatchers, who would then contact Boston police for armed backup — a relay of information they contend could cost precious minutes in saving lives.

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“They don’t have the proper tools to confront the things that they might confront in the school and indeed the things they confront every day,” said Alfred Gordon, a Boston lawyer who represents the ranking officers in the school police force. “Would we be prepared to face something like what happened in Newtown? I don’t know. I wish we could say with ultimate authority that we are, but I don’t know.”

City officials have reassured parents that their children are safe in school. But Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman, said Superintendent Carol R. Johnson is planning to look into equipping school police with bulletproof vests and into whether it makes sense for the school police’s radio system to be connected directly with that of the Boston Police Department.

School police, who are trained to conduct emergency lock-downs of buildings, have long sought the authority to carry guns, but Johnson and Mayor Thomas M. Menino oppose the idea.

In a statement, Johnson said: “While I think there is always more we can do to make our schools even more secure and safe, I don’t believe arming our school police officers is the answer, and neither do the parents I’ve spoken with. We must do all we can to secure our buildings while at the same time making our schools welcoming and nurturing environments.’’

Since the late 1970s, the School Department has operated its own police force, which replaced state and city police who stopped patrolling the hallways as racial tensions — sparked by court-ordered busing a few years earlier — began to ease.

Boston school police, a unit of 55 officers and 20 supervisors, cover all middle and high schools around the city and operate on a $3.9 million annual budget.

The Boston Police Department also assigns a unit to schools that is trained to deal with active shooters. The unit has 13 officers, three detectives, and one supervisor, and they wear bulletproof vests and carry firearms, mace, and batons. But the primary responsibility of patrolling the halls falls on school police.

Should a gunman attack, Boston school police are the first line of defense, Gordon said.

“They disarm students regularly,” he said. “There but for the grace of God you’ve never had the type of tragic event that you had there in Connecticut. But these officers are constantly facing students with everything from small knives to guns in school. They don’t have any similar weapon either defensive or offensive to deal with that, but yet they’re expected to, and indeed do, keep the schools safe.”

On average, Boston school police confiscate one or two guns a year and more than 300 sharp-edged objects, according to School Department data.

So far this school year, they have confiscated 124 knives and other sharp-edged objects and one firearm, which was found at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester.

If they were to encounter a gunman, Boston school police would immediately order a lock-down. That could prompt teachers to hide students in closets or corners of a classroom, as they did in Newtown.

Just three days after the Newtown shooting, an incident outside the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester suggested a serious lapse in school security.

A staff member wrongly let two young men inside through a side door — rather than the school’s front door — to watch basketball tryouts. School police told them to leave, but they returned with two other young men and got into an argument with a male student outside the gymnasium, threatening him with a firearm, according to a city police report. City police were called, and the four young men ran off.

Police tracked down one of them on a nearby street and found a firearm in a backpack.

Boston school police are currently negotiating a new contract with the city. Gordon, who is representing ranking officers in the contract negotiations, declined to comment on the matters under discussion. But several school police officers, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said that a new contract should provide for better equipment.

School police said many of them rely on Motorola radios that are eight to 12 years old and get poor reception in some parts of the schools.

Three years ago, Gordon said, school officials agreed to let officers carry mace but on the condition that the city create policies and procedures around its use. Officers are still waiting for officials to draft those policies, he said.

Wilder said the School Department will look into writing those policies and procedures.

Practices differ in other urban school districts.

In Brockton and Springfield, school police officers, who are paid by the school administration, are armed and have direct radio communication with EMS and other police officers.

School police officers in Brockton have been armed for at least 20 years, said Captain Wayne Sargo, head of operations at the Brockton Police Department.

“Some people don’t like the idea,” he said. “But I think more so, it puts people at ease. They feel better. I hear from parents that when they see a police car in front of the middle school they like seeing the car because they feel their kids are very safe.”

Kevin Quinn, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers in Alabama, said most school police officers around the country carry weapons, and called the unarmed school police in Boston “unique.” He said Boston school police, because they do not carry guns, would not benefit much from being trained on how to confront an active shooter.

“So much of the course is responding and going after an active shooter,” Quinn said. “The primary focus of active shooter response is find the threat and neutralize it. If you’re not armed you can’t do that.”

But some Boston parents prefer that school police be unarmed, worried that gunfire even by a trained professional could end up hitting an innocent bystander.

“The less guns the better,” said Bill Elsbree, a Jamaica Plain father of twin girls who attend the fifth grade at the Curley K-8 School, which has a school police officer. “The school is packed with kids. They are headed in all directions. Lord knows where bullets might end up.”

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