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Text messages fly on Boston School Committee after chairman’s racist remarks

Former Boston School Committee chair Michael Loconto in 2018.
Former Boston School Committee chair Michael Loconto in 2018.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/file

As a contentious Boston School Committee meeting on Zoom last month approached midnight, Chair Michael Loconto clicked off his camera, but accidentally left his microphone on. Within seconds, he could be heard mocking the Asian names of some upcoming speakers, remarks that set Twitter aflutter and reverberated around City Hall the next day.

His fellow School Committee members, stunned and confused by what they heard, sat nearly frozen in front of their cameras. One member initially thought the meeting had been Zoom bombed. But then, some members realized what had happened and started texting in disbelief.

“Was that ML saying Shannana and booboo???” Alexandra Oliver-Davila, vice chair at the time, wrote in a text to member Lorna Rivera obtained by the Globe.

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Rivera fired back: “I think he was making fun of the Chinese names! Hot mic!!!”

“That’s what I thought,” Oliver-Davila responded. "He’s gonna get killed.”

The uproar came swiftly. City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George tweeted while other School Committee viewers piled on. Essaibi-George and other councilors eventually called for his resignation. By noon the next day, Loconto stepped down.

The School Committee, which is appointed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh, has not met since Loconto’s downfall, and public comment has been scant. But text messages sent by members during that night, which were obtained by the Globe under a public records request, reveal the raw emotions and reactions they had to the offensive remarks that shook the Asian-American community and left a cloud over the School Committee and a landmark vote that night.

It was an awkward moment for members who were participating in the meeting from their homes with computer cameras focused tightly on their faces. Nearly seven hours into the Oct. 21 meeting, exhausted members seemed to struggle to comprehend how a political leader who was on the verge of shepherding through a historic change that would provide Black and Latino applicants greater access to the exam schools could at the same time disrespect another community of color.

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School Committee members in interviews condemned the mocking.

“It was a hurtful comment,” said Oliver-Davila, who is now acting chair. "I had worked with Michael Loconto for a long time. I got to know him as a man of integrity. I was sad about the comment for the Asian community. I was sad for Mr. Loconto. It was an inexcusable comment.”

But she added that she hoped his remarks wouldn’t overshadow his efforts to improve the school system.

Loconto, reached by text message, declined to comment.

Committee members' use of their cellphones for texting and other digital communications during their meetings has long raised eyebrows among many parents, educators, and activists, who have questioned whether members are distracted by personal matters or conversing with one another.

State law does not explicitly forbid public board members from texting each other during public meetings when less than a quorum is conversing digitally, according to the state attorney general’s website. But the office discourages the practice if members do not share the written communications publicly.

None of the text messages provided to the Globe indicate that members were using texts to deliberate on the exam-school proposal. Rather, the communications initially captured the jubilation of making a temporary, but seismic, change in how exam school seats would be awarded and then the fallout from Loconto’s comments.

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The School Committee was considering a highly contentious proposal by Superintendent Brenda Cassellius to temporarily suspend the admission test for the exam schools because of safety concerns over administering an in-person test during a pandemic. Instead, admission next year will be based almost exclusively on student grades and most seats will be distributed by student ZIP code, prioritizing low-income areas.

The change, approved at nearly 2 a.m., generated wide-ranging reactions. Championed by civil rights advocates and progressive-minded parents, the proposal also garnered intense opposition from many Asian and white parents, whose children would face tougher odds of getting in.

It was the kind of polarizing change that Walsh had sought to avoid during his seven years in office. But in an unusual move, Walsh appeared at the School Committee meeting on Zoom and threw his support behind it, citing the pandemic.

Walsh was among nearly 200 supporters and opponents who testified. At about 11:30 p.m., Loconto mocked the Asian names after the next speakers were announced.

“That was like Shania, Shanaya, Shanay-nay, and Boo Boo, and David, right?” Loconto said.

Cassellius fired off a text to member Michael O’Neill: “Yikes!”

Soon Loconto felt the blowback.

“Do I need to worry about my non-sequitur earlier?” Loconto texted to Oliver-Davila. “I feel awful, I’ve been getting texts about it from Michael and Brenda.”

She told him Essaibi-George was publicly criticizing him.

“Ugh Jeez On twitter?” Loconto texted back.

“I know. I’m sorry. Yes,” she said.

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“Oh God no I don’t know what to do,” he said.

“I think just again apologize,” she wrote.

O’Neill, the committee’s longest serving member, reached out to Loconto.

“What the heck was your last comment/your mic was on. Hope you were talking to your daughter about a bedtime book. Sha boo. Boo boo boo?” O’Neill wrote, apparently referencing a children’s song by Marky Weinstock.

“Geez sorry I was talking to my wife about a kid’s book,” Loconto said.

“Thought so, but it came out real weird!” O’Neill responded.

“I’m mortified if someone took it another way,” Loconto added after a couple of other texts. “Brenda mentioned it too and said someone else texted her about it.”

In explaining his remarks to the committee’s virtual audience, Loconto initially used the children’s book excuse. But Twitter kept buzzing, prompting Loconto to apologize again.

At one point in a text to O’Neill, Loconto wrote: “Am I ok? I hope I put that to bed.”

The next day Loconto issued another apology, saying he deeply regretted his actions.

O’Neill said in an interview he didn’t realize until after he rewatched the meeting the next day exactly what Loconto said and how hurtful the remarks were.

“He made a mistake, he owned up to it, and he resigned," O’Neill said. "He is paying a heavy price for it.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.