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BPS unveils investigation report on #BlackatBLS allegations

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Last week, Boston Public Schools’ Office of Equity completed its investigation into allegations of racism and administrative inaction at Boston Latin School. In the report — which was reviewed by external consultant Kenneth B. Grooms, Esq. — investigators concluded that the administration took appropriate action, under BPS procedure policies, in all but one incident that they examined. Some— including the students whose #BlackatBLS social media campaign inspired the investigation — say the report’s narrow scope failed to capture the full picture of discrimination at BLS.

This winter, members of BLS Black Leaders Aspiring for Change and Knowledge launched the #BlackatBLS campaign in response to racially offensive tweets allegedly posted by other students and the headmaster’s perceived inaction when she was informed of the situation. These tweets occurred during an online discussion of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MI.

The Office of Equity examined the Nov. 2014 tweets, a Nov. 7, 2014 incident reported to the Office of Equity by the NAACP, social media posts in response to the #BlackatBLS campaign and four other race-related incidents reported between Nov. 1, 2014 and Jan. 26, 2016. Investigators said that BLS administrators only violated conduct in their handling of the Nov. 7 incident.

Nov. 7 mishandling

The NAACP informed the Office of Equity of a Nov. 7, 2014 episode in which a non-black male student allegedly called a black female student by a racial slur and made a threatening reference to lynching. Although the perpetrator was disciplined, the report noted that neither his nor the victim’s parents were informed of the event. Investigators wrote that BLS administrators did not properly apply the school’s discipline practices and did not take sufficient actions to support the targeted student.

A BPS press release stated that the school system “did not adequately” investigate, discipline the perpetrator or support the victim came under critique by city councilors Ayanna Pressley and Tito Jackson for setting a low standard for responsiveness.

“Adequate response is too low of a bar,” Pressley said.

Headmaster controversy

NAACP Boston Branch President Michael Curry said Headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta’s response to the Nov. 7 incident seemed to prioritize protecting the perpetrator’s reputation over the victim’s safety. He called for Teta to be fired based on her handling of it.

In an official statement, Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau, the BLS BLACK students who organized #BlackatBLS, called for an apology from the headmaster for “ineffective actions” in response to issues and dismissive behavior that they say condoned discrimination. However, they explicitly avoided opining on disciplinary measures for any staff or students.

Binder of tweets

In late November 2014, students delivered a binder of printed-out post-Ferguson tweets to Headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta. Those included tweets such as “…they feel entitled to special treatment because their great great grandpa was a slave” and “If you hate us so much Go Bach [sic] to Africa.” According to the report, Teta and Assistant Headmaster Sherry Lewis-daPonte determined that the most offensive postings were not made by BLS students.

In their statement, Noel and Webster-Cazeau questioned the authority of administrators or investigators to determine what counts as “offensive,” and asked why investigators did not interview all students upset by the tweets.

“The original tweets and other incidents reported by students (not mentioned in the Executive Summary released by the Office of Equity) were all in violation of the BPS Non-Discrimination and Zero Tolerance policies because the incidents have in fact contributed to, promoted, and resulted in a hostile or discriminatory environment (EQT-4) at BLS,” Noel and Webster-Cazeau wrote.

Noel and Webster-Cazeau also called out what they said was the administration’s failure to implement a school-wide intervention focused specifically on racial discrimination and harassment. According to the report, in response to the binder of tweets, BLS held a voluntary after-school forum on topics that included race and gender, a presentation to all students on cyber safety — which did not mention issues of race or bias — and a voluntary forum on respectful online conduct.

Narrow scope of investigation

The report captures only a limited vew of the situation at BLS, many said.

Noel and Webster-Cazeau said some incidents were not covered — including an episode they reported to investigators in which a teacher used the n-word directed to a student.

Student voice also was limited in the investigation, they said. BPS reviewed students’ written feedback on the school’s culture and climate and initiated 14 interviews, of which at least eight were with staff and faculty, according to the report.

“Less than ten students were represented in the investigation, which is less than 1 percent of the nearly 2,600 members of the BLS community,” Noel and Webster-Cazeau wrote. “Interviews with such a small percentage do not reflect a complete assessment of the racial climate at BLS.”

Alumni accounts provide evidence of discrimination that precede the study’s Nov. 2014 limit, BLS class of 2007 alumna Rashanna Roach said.

“Alumni of color can agree there has always been this kind of underlying issue of racial discrimination,” she said. “Having the alumni voice is critical to affirming the student’s point that there’s more to the story.”

One example of which Roach was aware: When a black student ran for class president in the late 1990s, several white students protested by arriving at the school dressed in white hoods.

“We’ve gotten stories going back generations about racial incidents, without adequate resolution,” the NAACP’s Curry said.

Incident v. climate

Focusing on specific incidents and whether or not they violate policy fails to address the overall climate at the school and whether proactive measures should be implemented, said Rachel Larner, parent of a BLS ninth grader.

“[The report] took a very narrow focus: Was the code of conduct upheld, Yes or no? That’s one set of questions. The other set is, What’s the school climate, where are the problems in the school climate and what do we need to do to address it?”

Jackson also noted the report’s limited focus.

“I believe that the report falls short because the report actually analyzes individual instances of bullying and intimidation as well as racial hostility, but doesn’t look at these occurrences in their entirety,” Jackson said.

While the report targeted instances that suggest deliberate maliciousness, Larner said, there also is a need to tackle well-meaning insensitivity. She said her daughter told her of many instances of tone-deafness from teachers and students which created uncomfortable atmospheres.

In one instance, a Latin teacher singled out students of color during an attempt to explain institutionalized racism, Larner said.

“She was singling out students of color in the classroom, particularly boys, saying, ‘So-and-So is this many times more likely to go to jail than So-and-So.’ They’re fourteen years old,” Larner said, noting, “It doesn’t take very many incidents of racial insensitivity to poison the climate.”

Recommendations and goals

The Office of Equity’s recommendations for BLS include increasing dialogue and training around diversity and equity issues, enhancing procedures and protocols for investigating incidents and increasing representation of minority students and teachers. BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang said he would adopt those suggestions, but take them further. In a memo to the Boston School Committee, he pledged to initiate race and ethnicity dialogues across the district system, fund the work of Opportunity and Achievement Gap Office and reassign the Office of Equity so it now reports directly to the Superintendent.

Noel and Webster-Cazeau called the recommendations a good “first step” and said they hope to collaborate with BLS on wider-reaching measures. They outlined goals including immediate ones, such as an online portal to allow students to directly inform the administration of incidents, and long-term measures, such as including African history/African diaspora history in the curriculum.

Pressley emphasized the need to ensure that reforms affect the entire system, including enacting BPS-wide what the report deems a “racial climate audit.”