City Council Holds Hearing on School Safety, Orchard Gardens Community Speaks Out

The City Council Committee on Education held a hearing on March 26 regarding school safety and security measures. Several issues were discussed at length, including an overview of Boston Public Schools safety services, how the Boston School Police operates, and discussion of what the emergency management team does.

“As a former teacher and now as a parent of four Boston Public Schoolsw students, school safety has always been at the top of my mind,” said Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George. “A safe community must exist inside and outside of a school building.”

An issue that’s been especially prevalent in the South End community recently is the number of needles found in and around the Orchard Gardens K-8 school. John Hanlon, Chief Operating Officer for Boston Public Schools, said that to the best of his knowledge, there was one incident each at the Orchard Gardens and the Quincy Elementary school. Essaibi-George said that she knows of two others at the Mason Elementary School and the Russell Elementary School. “I think that it’s really important that we have better data,” she said.

“We take this matter in particular extremely seriously,” Hanlon said, adding that they work very closely with the police department and the Boston Public Health Commission “doing everything we can to keep children and staff as safe as possible.” He said that needle disposal kiosks have been installed at the Orchard Gardens and Mason schools to ensure that needles are properly disposed of.

Several members from Orchard Gardens United, a group of students, parents, educators, and community members who work to better the lives of children at the Orchard Gardens School, testified about how their quality of life is affected by this issue.

Suzie McGlone, a teacher at Orchard Gardens, said they have asked for a fence, a comprehensive cleanup of the school grounds, and more sharps units on and more frequent sweeps. “Some of it doesn’t seem like enough,” she said. She said that having Orchard Gardens custodians “going out and doing extra work takes them away from the work at our school”—they should not be taking on extra work of the city, she said. 

She said that they need to expand mental health services for students affected by the crisis at Orchard Gardens, as she walks to work every day and sees prostitution and drug use “on a regular basis,” she said, and many students see the same things on their way to school. “I can’t imagine being a young student at our school and what that does.”

McGlone said that they are going to look into getting a study grant for mental health services, as well as more creative solutions to help students. “We are asking for the City Council to consider more support for us for mental health services,” she said.

Jada Ricard, an Orchard Gardens fifth grader, also testified about how scared she is to play outside and of the things she sees outside her school. “Me and my friends cant even play in the field next to the school because it’s unsafe,” she said. “We are afraid that we might get pricked by a needle.”

Ricard also testified at the recent opioid epidemic town hall hosted by Rep. Santiago, where she asked what was going to be done for her and her friends, but “all they talked about was the services they were going to provide for the drug addicts,” she said. “No one has answered any of my questions and I’m tired. So now it’s time for me to demand a few things. I’m demanding that you keep us safe. I’m demanding that you hire someone to clean our school grounds daily. I am demanding that there is police at the school in the morning and afternoon.”

Ricard’s mother also testified, saying that the fear instilled in her child by her environment made her decide to get involved. She said that there needs to be someone “legally bound” to clean the playground structure, as it is contaminated with urine and fecal matter, and needles are hidden under the mulch. “We are doing our own steps and finding several needles every day,” she said. “We understand that this is a big and broad issue but the kids didn’t ask for it and it’s not fair to them.”

Another Orchard Gardens student who walks with her little brother to school every morning said she was scared to go to school once she heard about the student who got pricked with a needle. “I can’t even go outside in my own backyard and throw away the trash,” she said, and said she has to stay in the house with the doors locked because she fears what the people lurking around her home will do to her. She said her school should be taking care of these things so she does not have to see or deal with them.

A great-grandmother of a 9 year old at Orchard Gardens said that gunfire during the daytime near the Orchard Gardens School is “prevalent,” and that schools should be notified of something like this. She said she also thinks children should be told by a professional about what is going on in their community with all of the drug activity so they can have a better understanding of why people look the way they do.

BPS Chief of Staff Rob Consalvo said that “each and everything that was requested by Orchard Gardens is something that the district is prepared to do.” He said that they are in the process of installing an 8-foot high decorative cast-iron fence that would replace the current length of fence on Melnea Cass Boulevard. “That project is out to bid,” he said, and they have to follow public procurement law and go through all the necessary steps to have it properly approved and installed.

“Our custodial team does an amazing job,” Consalvo said, adding that the maintenance of the grounds are a part of their responsibility whether or not there are needles. He said there are three regular sweeps that have been established: 7 a.m., 9:30 a.m., and 1:30 p.m. before school is dismissed. He said these sweeps are logged in the principal’s office with what has been found.

He also said there is a citywide grounds crew that handles custodial issues at schools citywide. That crew has been going to Orchard Gardens every Monday morning since December to help sweep from the preceding weekend. Lighting at the school has also been improved, Consalvo said, along with the installation of power washing equipment to clean the playground.

This is an ongoing conversation with the community, and Essaibi-George said, “I think it’s very clear that multiple partners need to be involved in this work,” including community members, the police department, behavioral health support, and families.

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