Massachusetts’ Proactive Approach to Youth Violence Prevention
By Meghan Fay, Assistant Editor

When a 6-year-old boy fatally shot his classmate in Michigan last week, communities nationwide were shocked. But the incident also reaffirmed many of the efforts school districts are making to identify and assess those youth who need help and attention.

Many communities in the Boston area, in light of these recent school violence incidents, have reevaluated school safety protocols and become more proactive in their efforts to thwart violence among at-risk youth. “If it can happen in a school like [Columbine High School, a school that seemed to be a model school], it could happen in any of our communities. We’re not immune,” said Leo Sacco, Chief of Police in Medford, Massachusetts and President of the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC). 

NEMLEC is a consortium of police chiefs from 26 communities, who meet monthly to discuss issues that concern their communities. According to Sacco, although school safety has always been a concern, after Columbine it became a topic of conversation that demanded action. “As police officers we do a great job of responding to incidents, but we realize that it’s not enough; we need to focus on violence prevention,” said Sacco.

STARS Bridges Communication Gap Between Law Enforcement and Educators

Officials created STARS, which stands for School Threat Assessment Response System, to make school violence prevention a joint effort between NEMLEC and area school superintendents. The mission of STARS is, “to prepare, assess, respond and strive to prevent threats of violence in schools through a regional program that recognizes the individual uniqueness and integrity of each community.” 

STARS unifies the school safety efforts of both law enforcement officials and school superintendents. With the increase in communication between the two entities, a new plane of understanding has been reached. Sacco explains that officers now understand that educators want law enforcement involved in school safety efforts, but are, “really looking to keep the learning environment as normal as possible.” 

The program sets out 18 different incidents/threat response areas, including written and electronic incidents (i.e. Internet, e-mail), weapons/firearms incidents; gang activity; narcotics incidents; hate crime and diversity incidents; and fatalities, suicides or attempted suicides. Each of these potential incidents has an appropriate response classification and response level -- either local, regional or state and federal. There are five, three-member assessment teams called STAR Teams, which consist of a representative each from law enforcement, education and mental health services, charged with assessing situations.

There isn’t one answer to preventing school violence, but many feel as though increased communication between educators and law enforcement is one key to Massachusetts’ present success. While suburban communities are working with NEMLEC and developing the pilot program STARS, the Boston Public School system is continuing its work with the juvenile justice roundtables to address school violence prevention.

At-Risk Youth Benefit From Roundtable Discussions

Five years ago, Suffolk County District Attorney, Ralph C. Martin II, established the Community Based Juvenile Justice Program (CBJJ) to reduce juvenile crime, increase school and community safety and to identify and develop innovative intervention strategies for juveniles who are at risk for developing delinquent behavior. Currently, 60 percent of the high schools and 47 percent of the middle schools in Boston participate in CBJJ. The goal is to intervene in the lives of at risk youth as soon as school or agency personnel identify them.

“What we are faced with is a wide range of different departments and agencies who don’t know what each other are doing and occasionally they work against each other,” said John Sisco, Chief of Safety Security and Chief of School Police for Boston Public Schools. The juvenile justice roundtables bring the following agencies together, literally, at the same table: representatives from the District Attorney’s office, probation, Boston Police Department, Department of Youth Services, Department of Social Services, Department of Mental Health, School Headmaster or Superintendent, Student Support Coordinator and attendance officer. 

All of the parties involved in the roundtable discussions are bound by confidentiality regulations so no minutes are taken nor are there any written documents shared between individuals. All information is shared in conversation. “It enlightens us to the status of the child and what services they are getting and what services need to be enhanced. We are operating outside the box in the best interest of the clients we serve,” said Sisco. The roundtables have become a crucial element to providing adequate services to youth because usually confidentiality regulations prevent sharing information about youth receiving services.

The juvenile justice roundtables work to catch kids before they fall through the cracks and also try to prevent a duplication of services. The youth who are discussed at the roundtable are referred from the school system. If a youth hasn’t caused trouble in school, then their name won’t come up at the table. But if the school exhausts its resources in trying to help the youth, the students name will get mentioned to develop a comprehensive plan of services to address the student’s needs. 

The intervention can range from organizing a visit from a probation officer to an intervention to deal with mental health related behavior. “We’re a safety net,” said Sisco. “Our systems have holes in them and this is an effort to catch those kids who fall through”

According to Amy Chris, Program Coordinator for the community based juvenile justice roundtables, however, not everyone is pleased with the juvenile justice roundtables. The collaboration effort receives criticism from defense attorneys and different community groups who feel left out of the discussion. Chris believes that the critics are concerned that the discussions are punitive in nature, which she assures they are not.

According to Ann Todd, Student Support Coordinator for Dorchester High School in Dorchester, Massachusetts, she finds out about students who are exhibiting at-risk behavior or are having difficulties either by a referral from a student or teacher or the name is brought up at the roundtable. 

“We’re not pinpointing kids to get them in trouble. It’s to get them resources,” she said. The roundtables evolved from frustrations over duplicated services, the schools feeling powerless and a need to effectively reach youth with services. Whereas, schools used to feel as though they were working in the dark and had no resources to turn to, now, “I have a name, a face and a person I know to contact,” when I need to get help for a student, said Todd.

Boston Public School
Ann Todd, Student Support Coordinator for Dorchester High School
Amy Chris, Program Coordinator for the community based juvenile justice roundtables
John Sisco, Chief of Safety Security and Chief of School Police for Boston Public Schools
Leo Sacco, Chief of Police in Medford, Massachusetts and President of the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC). 
Elliot Feldman, Director of Alternative Programs for Boston Public Schools
Paul Fahey, Legislative Director for MA Senator James Jajuga of the school violence commission
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