Boston School Committee Chairman Michael Loconto resigned Thursday, hours after he was caught on a hot mike mocking Asian names of people who had signed up for public comment during a marathon virtual meeting about exam school admissions.
Loconto made the remarks more than six hours into the Zoom meeting after the School Committee’s moderator announced the next round of speakers testifying on a controversial measure to temporarily drop the admission test for the city’s exam schools.
“That was like Shania, Shanaya, Shanay-nay, and Boo Boo, and David, right?” Loconto said.
Realizing he had been heard, Loconto apologized during the meeting, explaining that he was speaking to someone else in his room while his mike was accidentally on and said, “I was talking about a children’s book.”
The comments immediately erupted into a firestorm on social media and by Thursday morning more than a half-dozen city councilors — including mayoral candidates Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell — called for his resignation.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who described Loconto’s comments as “hurtful and wrong," said just before noon that he had accepted the board chair’s resignation from the School Committee. Walsh appointed Loconto to the committee in 2014.
“None of us wishes to be defined by a single moment in our lives and no one knows that better than me," Walsh said in a statement. "Michael is someone who has done important and difficult work for the people of Boston, and especially our children, but we cannot accept the disparagement of members of our community.”
Loconto, in a statement, said he was deeply sorry, adding that he took “full responsibility for my actions.”
“I spent the early hours of this morning reflecting on the events of last night’s meeting and the harm my words have caused for BPS families, staff, my fellow School Committee members and the community,” he said in a statement. “I reached the decision that my comments should not be without consequence, and notified Mayor Walsh of my immediate resignation from the School Committee.”
Loconto, a West Roxbury attorney who serves as general counsel at Curry College in Milton, was elected School Committee chairman in 2018, 2019, and 2020. His current term was scheduled to expire in 2022. All School Committee positions are mayoral appointments.
His comments came late Wednesday night amid a discussion of a proposal to drop admissions tests to the exam schools for one year because of the pandemic. The School Committee ultimately voted 7-0 to approve the proposal, which will determine eligibility and acceptance by using grades, MCAS scores, and ZIP codes.
City Council President Kim Janey and city councilors Ricardo Arroyo, Lydia Edwards, Annissa Essaibi-George, Julia Mejia, and Matt O’Malley, as well as Campbell and Wu, all called Thursday morning to lobby for Loconto’s resignation.
Mocking names is rooted in racism. Period. To have the chair of the governing body of a school district that is 86% students of color mock our families is unconscionable. This is not how we lead the nation on education or racism. Loconto must resign. Boston deserves better.— Kim Janey (@Kim_Janey) October 22, 2020
Names are one of the most personal parts of everyone's identity. It's unacceptable for anyone to mock names. That's especially true for those of us in positions of power. Michael Loconto must resign.— Lydia Edwards (@LydiaMEdwards) October 22, 2020
I was disappointed that in 2020 people in positions of power can freely unleash their complete disregard & disrespect for people of color. @mtloconto comments last night highlights why we have lost faith in the system. It is clear that he is not fit to represent #AllMeansAll— Julia Mejia (@juliaforboston) October 22, 2020
It’s hard to fight for equity and excellence in public education, when you mock the names of those fighting for these ideals. Mike Loconto should resign from the Boston School Committee.— Matt O'Malley😷 (@MattOMalley) October 22, 2020
Councilor Ed Flynn, who represents Chinatown, said that Loconto’s comments were racist and that his resignation was the right thing to do.
Another problem, Flynn said, was that there were no Cantonese or Mandarin interpreters for the first 2½ hours of the lengthy hearing. There was interpretation for the public comment period, Flynn said, but not having such services at the start was a mistake.
“That was part of the frustration, that the Chinese community feels they’re not included and they’re not part of the process,” he said. “That’s very disrespectful, doing that, not communicating with them. . . . We need to do a much better job of outreach to the Asian community.”
Essaibi-George, who previously was a teacher in East Boston, participated in the virtual meeting and heard Loconto’s comments.
“There are things to apologize for that you might be embarrassed about that aren’t appropriate for public consumption and there are things you resign for, and there’s a very clear line between those two things,” she said Thursday.
Boston’s families are under pressure to educate their kids, she said, and “the chair of the School Committee has to hold it together.”
The school district’s families come from different backgrounds, Essaibi-George said, and the comments exposed “something that’s more problematic” than just a verbal slip.
“As someone who has an ethnic name, it’s appalling and personally offensive,” said Essaibi-George, whose father, Ezzeddine, immigrated to the United States from Tunisia in 1972.
Mr. Loconto's behavior last night was unacceptable. I'm deeply appalled, personally offended, by his words. I watched & heard it live. It is unconscionable that he would mock & disparage our families. Our school communities & our City deserve more. It's time for his resignation.— Annissa Essaibi-George (@AnnissaForBos) October 22, 2020
Wu, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan, called Loconto’s comments racist, saying they were “simply unacceptable.”
“As someone who has dealt with comments like these my entire life, I am deeply disappointed but not surprised,” she said, adding that it’s not the first time “families have felt marginalized, dismissed, and belittled in front of the School Committee.”
“I know so many people who have experienced this our entire lives," she said.
Wu said she hoped the incident would cause people to “reflect on the impact of such words."
“We can and need to do better,” she said.
Campbell said she doesn’t accept “this behavior” from the head of the School Committee and called on Walsh not to accept the behavior, as well.
“Racist comments are never acceptable, most of all by our public servants,” she said in a statement. “This is not the first time people of color have felt disrespected by Mr. Loconto."
Racist comments are never acceptable, most of all by our public servants. This is not the first time people of color have felt disrespected by Mr. Loconto. I don’t accept this behavior from our School Committee Chair and neither should Mayor Walsh. Loconto should resign.— Andrea J. Campbell (@andreaforboston) October 22, 2020
When Arroyo first heard the comments, he said, he thought the hearing had been Zoom-bombed.
“I didn’t think it was from him, because it was pretty bad,” Arroyo said, calling the comments “exaggerated names said in a mocking tone.”
Arroyo was in favor of the change to exam school testing, saying it was a step in the right direction of reversing decades of racial inequity in Boston.
Last night’s BSC gave me hope because of the inspiring testimony from residents centering justice & equity. Hearing Loconto mock names during that testimony was infuriating.— Ricardo Arroyo (@RicardoNArroyo) October 22, 2020
Names are sacred. They all deserve respect. Boston deserves better, we deserve better. He must resign.
Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said that while the meeting was a “profound moment for Boston schoolchildren that charts the course for the best and most equitable way we can continue admitting students into our exam schools,” she shares in the “the hurt and disappointment that others are feeling following the unacceptable comments made by former chairperson Loconto.”
But she added, “I do not want that to overshadow what was accomplished last night.”
It was not the first time Loconto made comments during a public meeting that some found to be offensive. At a virtual School Committee meeting in June, after introducing a Vietnamese interpreter, Loconto said, “Thank you Mr. Tran, no relation I suppose with the other Mr. Tran?”
It was an apparent reference to School Committee member Quoc Tran.
“I was shocked no one called him out,” said one parent, who is Asian-American and watched the meeting. He added that he had heard such jokes since he was a child.
Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang said in a statement that "the union agrees that his resignation is both necessary and appropriate.”
“Comments mocking culture and identity are unacceptable and further reinforce the perpetual foreigner stereotype that many immigrants face,” she said in a statement. “Unfortunately, comments like these, while triggering for many — including myself — are not new, but they do lay bare open the systemic racism in our society.”
Correspondent Jeremy Fox contributed to this report.