About 200 supporters of Boston School Superintendent Carol Johnson packed the pews of Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain Saturday proclaiming a unified message: The embattled superintendent will not be going anywhere.
“Our schools need a leader with integrity and honesty,” said the Rev. Ray Hammond, the church’s pastor. “Carol Johnson has been and will continue to be that leader.”
The rally was held just one day after a group of public school parents began a petition drive calling for Johnson to resign. As of early Saturday evening, the online petition had 57 signatures.
The superintendent has come under fire after the Globe reported last Sunday that she took no action to discipline Rodney Peterson, former co-headmaster of John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury, after he was arrested and admitted assaulting his wife in June 2011.
Johnson has since apologized for her handling of the matter and has crafted a draft policy that would automatically put employees facing charges of serious misconduct on administrative leave.
On Saturday, supporters argued that Johnson actively seeks and listens to community input when making major decisions, and they cited increasing graduation rates, among other achievements, as evidence of her effective leadership.
People fanned themselves with the paper programs and children fidgeted in the stifling air of the non-air conditioned church as ministers preached about Johnson’s dedication to the city’s children and impromptu speakers stepped up to the pulpit and spoke.
“Previous superintendents didn’t embrace all of the children in the city of Boston,” said Kevin Andrews, founding headmaster of the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester. “It was Dr. Carol Johnson who brought all of the schools in Boston together.”
Johnson would not comment on last week’s calls for her resignation from Councilor John Connolly, although many of the speakers slammed him for what they called a politically motivated move.
“I know John Connolly, and he’s a decent man,” said Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. “But this angry white man thing he’s got going on to position himself for a run for mayor, it’s not going to fly.”
Multiple speakers said they believed Connolly is only asking for Johnson’s resignation to inflate his political persona, and said if he continues to campaign for her removal, he will suffer at the ballot box.
“We’ve got the greatest public school administrator in the country,” said the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Roxbury. “We love you John Connolly, but she’s not going anywhere.”
Connolly, who is chairman of the council’s Education Committee, could not be reached for comment.
Petition organizer Valerie Madden of Roxbury, whose children attend Boston Latin Academy and Mission Hill K-8 School, said in a phone interview Saturday that the new policy and public apology are not enough.
“A public school official of her caliber, at her level, must know how to handle a situation like that, and the way that she handled it is unacceptable,” Madden said. “Her being brave enough to stand up and say she screwed up and that she is sorry isn’t good enough. We want her to go.”
But those at the rally insisted Johnson is staying.
Councilors Felix Arroyo, Tito Jackson, and Ayanna Pressley were among those who spoke in her support on Saturday, and Mayor Thomas Menino has also publicly supported Johnson.
“If I don’t see perfect when I look in the mirror, I don’t expect to see perfect when I look at other people,” said Arroyo, who added that Johnson has earned the right to see her educational initiatives through to completion.
Jackson, the District 7 councilor, said Johnson is often open to experimenting with new ideas for Boston schools, and noted the scope of her responsibilities.
As superintendent, Johnson oversees the 56,000-student school system’s $1.1 billion budget, he said.
“Most so-called leaders are unwilling to say when they’re wrong,” Jackson said.
More than a dozen Boston public school students attended the rally, some carrying homemade signs and flowers for Johnson.
“She has raised the bar for education in our schools,” said Oneil Bailey Jr., 18, who graduated from Boston Community Leadership Academy this spring and will attend Northeastern University in the fall.
“Young people all need someone behind us to give us that push,” he said. “And Dr. Johnson was one of my biggest motivators.’’
The superintendent, who teared up while addressing those gathered in the sanctuary's pews, said she was overwhelmed by the show of support.
“The most important lesson from all of this for our young people is that adults make mistakes too,” Johnson said in an interview following the rally. “The most important thing is to acknowledge those mistakes and to make sure that they don’t happen again.”
Wesley Lowery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter