Ferguson, Missouri, is a long way from Boston, so Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau were surprised to see their Twitter feeds blowing up after a grand jury in Missouri declined in November 2014 to indict a police officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown.
“Mike Brown deserved it,” one tweet read.
“Go back to Africa,” read another.
“Teargas. Them. All. Rubber bullets idc whatever it takes.”
These tweets especially disturbed the two young women because they were either written or retweeted by fellow students at Boston Latin School. There had been racial tension at the school before, but the Ferguson situation stoked smoldering embers.
Boston Latin is the nation’s oldest public school and perhaps its most prestigious. But in a district where 77 percent of students are black or Latino, only 12 percent of Boston Latin students are Hispanic and just 9 percent are black. The racial climate at Latin, the two believed, was symptomatic of a larger problem: the school’s lukewarm commitment to diversity, equality, and justice.
And so, at some personal risk, they decided to call it out, challenging the power structure of their school and a district that, in their eyes, had been marginalizing minority students. Their activism and assertiveness would change the debate about race — not just inside one of Boston’s most esteemed institutions, but across the city itself.
It started with a text from Noel to advisers for their student group, BLS BLACK (Black Leaders Aspiring for Change and Knowledge), one of whom, Rose Delorme, suggested she print out the offending tweets and show them to someone in authority. Noel and fellow group member Saron Admasu printed out some 25 separate tweets and put them in a blue turquoise binder. The next day, they showed it to history teacher Cheralyn Pinchem, also a BLS BLACK adviser. Pinchem’s eyes widened as she went through the binder. She suggested they show it to the school’s headmaster, Lynne Mooney Teta.
Teta met with them the next day and seemed upset by the binder’s contents.
Weeks passed. Then months. Then summer break. Noel and Webster-Cazeau, who had become the point people for the student group, even appealed to influential voices outside the school. But after more than a year had gone by with almost no feedback from Teta or anyone else in the administration, they felt the school’s racial climate had gotten worse. Early this year, at Latin’s annual assembly remembering Martin Luther King Jr., Noel and Webster-Cazeau realized they needed not to reflect on the slain civil rights leader but to emulate him. “It was obvious that Martin Luther King’s legacy wasn’t being made relevant to what was going on today, in the streets, in our school,” Noel says. “The death of Michael Brown. The death of Eric Garner. The University of Missouri situation. And still we got nothing from the administration.” The binder of bigotry had gotten no meaningful response. Noel, then 17, and Webster-Cazeau, then 18, decided they had to do something more dramatic.
Immediately after the MLK assembly, the two students headed for Pinchem’s classroom. As Pinchem sat on one side of the room, grading papers, they switched Webster-Cazeau’s iPhone to video and recorded a 1-minute, 51-second message. Three days later, on the Martin Luther King holiday, they uploaded the video to YouTube. In it, they’re wearing the BLS BLACK T-shirts they’d worn to the MLK assembly. Their plea seems more altruistic than angry, more Bob’s Discount Furniture commercial than Black Lives Matter manifesto. But it is a slyly self-aware call to action, a 21st-century protest song.
“We are here today,” Meggie says as the video begins.
“To initiate phase one of our campaign,” Kylie adds, and then they say in unison, “Hashtag Black at BLS.”
They urge other BLS students and alumni to use that hashtag to post examples on social media of racism and racially insensitive remarks and gestures they’ve experienced at the school.
Like, Kylie says, “when you’re the only black student in your AP US history course and when slavery comes up, they all turn to you.”
Like, Meggie says, “when people can walk in the halls saying ‘nigger’ without fear of being reprimanded.”
Or, Kylie says, “when your white peers are using Twitter and Facebook to put out racial slurs and negative things about students of color and you print out the tweets and give them to your headmaster in a binder and then she does nothing about it.”
The video was viewed 14,000 times in the first 24 hours, with more than 100 people posting their stories at #BlackatBLS. As it flew on the wings of social media, its indictment of headmaster Teta put her on the defensive, not just from her own students but a cadre of civil rights activists.
City Councilors Tito Jackson and Josh Zakim vouched for the girls, saying “little or no action” had been taken by the school’s administration after the girls submitted the binder of tweets, which Jackson had learned about when he met Noel and Webster-Cazeau after speaking at the 2015 MLK Assembly at Latin. Michael Curry, head of the local branch of the NAACP, and Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts president Darnell Williams accused Teta of failing to act.
Others, including influential alumni, spoke up in defense of Teta, but a die was cast. Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Superintendent Tommy Chang praised Noel and Webster-Cazeau and promised to act. Investigations were launched.
When an initial Boston Public Schools investigation in mid-February essentially cleared Teta, Noel and Webster-Cazeau criticized its lack of scope, noting that it focused on only 14 individuals. “There are 2,400 students and 118 faculty at BLS,” Webster-Cazeau pointed out. “Fourteen people will not reflect what’s going on.”
But when, in the aftermath of that report, the NAACP’s Curry upped the ante and called for Teta’s ouster, Noel and Webster-Cazeau declined to join the firing line. “We never wanted Lynne fired,” Noel says. “That shifted the message. We wanted to work with her. We wanted them to do their job and punish the students who deserved it.” Rather than board the “Fire Teta” bandwagon, she and Webster-Cazeau started limiting their interaction with the media.
Walsh and Chang insisted they could address the racial climate at Latin in-house and independently. But US Attorney Carmen Ortiz had other ideas, and in March launched a probe of alleged civil rights violations at Latin.
Still, in June, Noel and Webster-Cazeau sat in the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion in the Seaport, at their commencement, as Walsh paid tribute in his remarks. “I want to thank you for holding those conversations,” the mayor told the graduates. “Ultimately, they will make our city stronger.” Pinchem, the teacher and adviser whom they sought out and showed their binder full of tweets, received a faculty award. It’s based on a nomination from Noel and Webster-Cazeau, whom Pinchem had nicknamed Maya Angelou and Zora Neale Hurston, after the great black writers and activists. Even Teta praised the two students. She resigned a week later, to their dismay.
Over the summer, Noel and Webster-Cazeau’s initial complaints were vindicated. In August, a deeper investigation by the Boston Public School’s Office of Equity concluded that administrators had mishandled six complaints by “failing to appropriately investigate, document and/or take steps to prevent recurrences of bias-based conduct.” It also found four teachers accused of acting with bias toward students had violated school policy. Then in September, Ortiz released a scathing report saying that BLS administrators had not taken reports of racially driven incidents seriously enough nor paid enough attention to the school’s racial climate.
Though some accused Ortiz of playing politics, the new Latin administration agreed to reforms, including regular training for students, faculty, and staff, the creation of a restorative justice system in the school, and the hiring of a diversity officer to monitor complaints of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. By this time, Noel (a former intern at the Boston Globe) was a month into her first semester at Spelman College in Atlanta, and Cazeau-Webster was at Temple University in Philadelphia. Even as they buried their noses in books, their actions reverberated. In November, Walsh launched what he said would be an ongoing, citywide public discussion on race.
Civil rights leaders in Boston hailed the young women; Jackson compared them to Harriet Tubman. From their dorm rooms, they were reluctant to embrace all the praise thrown their way. They take more comfort in reports from friends still at Latin that things are improving — slowly but surely. “It’s nice to be called a hero,” Noel says. “But we just wanted students of color at BLS to not have to deal with what we dealt with, that they at least have a forum to discuss these issues, that discipline is fair and across the board.”
The two stay in touch; Noel visited Webster-Cazeau at Temple, and a reciprocal trip is in the works. Back in Boston for Thanksgiving, they went to the BLS pep rally to cheer on the school against English. “Walking into the building at first was a little overwhelming, but I did feel welcomed,” Webster-Cazeau says. Noel says the reunion was more social than issue-oriented, just hanging with old friends. There will be more serious discussions during the winter break.
Both want to be lawyers. They know that, even more than their binder, even more than their iPhones, the law is an instrument of change and, ultimately, justice. “We know the work is never done,” Noel says.
Bostonians of the year
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau considered Boston Public Schools’ response to their initial complaints inadequate, and that the department’s August investigation was deeper in scope.