Neva Coakley-Grace, a former Boston police officer, has been named chief of the Boston Public Schools Safety Services Department, BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius announced.
“Chief Coakley-Grice brings decades of experience forging relationships with young people and a child-centered disposition that will ensure the entire team is prepared to welcome students and staff into our schools every day,” Superintendent Cassellius said in a statement.
Coakley-Grice is the first African-American woman in Boston to be appointed to the post.
"It's behoove to me to open up the door for someone else behind me, for other Black girls, other Black boys, looking at me and saying, 'you know, I didn't really think I could do it but because you did it, I have a chance," she told NBC10 Boston's Latoyia Edwards in a video interview.
In her new role, Coakley-Grice will manage nearly 80 people in 55 schools and her top priority will be the safety of all the students, the department said. She will be tasked with helping to create an environment where students feel safe, loved and supported in Boston schools.
In her announcement, Superintendent Cassellius highlighted Chief Coakley-Grice’s strong foundations in building relationships with youth, her strong community connections and her experience working with schools.
Born and raised in Boston, a self-proclaimed "hometown girl," Coakley-Grice recalls having negative interactions with Boston police as a child.
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“The stop and frisk. Some of my brothers and cousins had been on the receiving end of those," she recalled. "So we were real angry with the police.”
That anger fueled her desire to be a part of the solution. After college, Coakley-Grice became a Boston police officer.
“It's very passionate for me to do this work particularly at this time," she said. "But if not me, then who? It’s time to stand in the gap.”
During her 27 years with the Boston Police Department, Coakley-Grice focused on helping kids, as a rookie working with South Boston youth groups, in the gang prevention unit, in media relations, and finally in the community engagement bureau.
“To be a police officer, you have to want to help someone," she said. "You have to want to help someone!"
In the midst of this summer's social justice rallies, Coakley-Grice retired from the BPD and accepted a new challenge: leading nearly 80 school resource officers in a climate where local students are marching against police brutality.
How does she plan to make that work?
"You know what? Right now we are an intricate part of the school community," she said. "We are the coaches. They are the martial art instructors. They are in some sense some of the educators. They are some of the, we have ministers that are some of our school police officers."
Coakley-Grice says she plans to elevate interactions between her school police officers and the students they serve by enhancing officer training in restorative justice and youth trauma.
Her appointment was celebrated by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, and Superintendent Nora Baston, head of the department’s Bureau of Community Engagement.
Mayor Walsh called her "a leader in our community who has a history of connecting with students and supporting schools.”
“Chief Coakley-Grice understands the critical importance of this role, and has promised to engage honestly with the community and make necessary public safety adjustments and improvements in order to cultivate trust with families and ensure students thrive in safe, welcoming and culturally affirming learning environments,” Mayor Walsh said in a statement.
Commissioner Gross said he is "thrilled" by the news, adding that Coakley-Grice is "deeply committed to the communities of Boston and the students of Boston Public Schools."
"In her long history with the Boston Police Department, she brought this commitment to every assignment she has had," Gross said. "I am confident that the Boston Public Schools team is in great hands with Chief Coakley-Grice and look forward to working collaboratively with her and her team to support the youth of Boston.”
Superintendent Baston, who says she has known Coakley-Grice for her entire career, says Coakley-Grice "understands the value and importance of building relationships and working closely with the community."
"She understands that schools cannot be ‘policed’ and that safety can be enhanced through establishing trust amongst students, families, faculty, staff, and administrators of the Boston Public Schools system," Baston said in a statement.
Coakley-Grice replaces Eric Weston, who is retiring after 34 years with the department.