Sign up to receive a newsletter for The Great Divide, an investigative series that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. And please reach out to us at email@example.com with story ideas and tips.
A high school senior resigned as the Boston School Committee’s student representative Thursday, saying administrators had silenced students’ voices and that he had deep concerns about a nonprofit group that oversees the district-wide student council.
Khymani James, 17, a senior at Boston Latin Academy, said he stepped down after concluding that the district’s leaders, including administrators, staffers, and school board members, were “racist and adultist” in overlooking concerns by him and his fellow students, most of whom are Black and Latino. Another dozen students with similar complaints resigned from the Boston Student Advisory Council, a district-wide student government board, James said.
“I had no choice but to resign,” James said through tears Friday. “I can’t be a part of a system that tells kids, ‘Oh we’re listening to you,’ but their actions are the complete antithesis.”
The long-simmering conflict stems in part from a philosophical difference: James and other student leaders see their role as holding school officials accountable for improving racial equity and educational quality. The district, meanwhile, sees the student council’s purpose as connecting policymakers with students and fostering young people’s leadership, public-speaking, and political skills.
In Boston Student Advisory Council meetings, staffers from a local nonprofit, Youth on Board, who oversee the council, would routinely try to edit questions to Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and other district leaders in advance to be less confrontational, James and other students said.
“If any question sounded too inflammatory or combative, they’d have you rewrite it or say, ‘It’s not the time or space for that,’ ” James said. “We’ve been trying to convey for months: We don’t work for Brenda. Brenda works for us.”
The staffers also insisted on hearing James’s planned statements before School Committee meetings and often pressured him to tone them down, he said.
James said Youth on Board staffers also heavily edited an op-ed James wrote for The Boston Globe that was critical of city officials’ “warped priorities” during the pandemic, leading him to abandon the piece. And they expected to be notified in advance of students’ interviews with the news media, he said.
“We’d ask these questions which were edited and structured to ensure not only we weren’t offending [Cassellius] but we would be kissing [expletive],” said Charlene Adames-Pimentel, a senior at Boston Latin Academy who resigned from the student council.
Adames-Pimentel said she pressed Cassellius on whether her COVID-19 safety plan provided for adequate air ventilation, but did not get a satisfactory response.
“It’s like she’s there to put on a show so she can go to the School Committee and say she met with students,” she said.
For James, the resignation followed months of feeling disrespected as he pushed for the student representative to be granted a vote and a stipend like the other members of the school board, who are appointed by the mayor. Although it’s unclear how many local school committees include students and allow them to vote, the student representative on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education does have voting power.
Without a vote, James said, he felt the other School Committee members didn’t respect him or take him seriously. When James recently sought for the committee to pass a resolution opposing students undergoing state standardized tests amid the pandemic, “they looked at me like I had frogs on my face,” he said, and never considered it.
I want to say that I do not *want* to leave but I *have* to leave. I was raised to prioritize my morals and beliefs over everything else and that’s what I am doing.— Khymani James (@KhymaniJames) March 5, 2021
Message to my constituents: Never be restrained or silenced. Break out of those chains and speak your truth!
After a newly appointed School Committee member, Ernani DeAraujo, said publicly last month that he didn’t believe the student representative deserved a vote, James criticized the comment on Twitter, prompting Cassellius to text James and advise him to be more diplomatic, according to James. The School Committee chairwoman, Alexandra Oliver-Dávila, also called him with similar concerns, he said, which James interpreted as attempts to silence him.
Oliver-Dávila didn’t respond to a request for comment, but in a joint statement the district and School Committee said both organizations “deeply value” students’ voices and that they inform district policies.
“We strive to create environments where young people can bring their unique student experiences to every conversation, to ask challenging questions, and to co-create solutions,” the statement said. “Working alongside Youth on Board, our staff will take steps to engage [student council] members and determine how we work together to move forward.”
But four student council members described the nonprofit, Youth on Board, and its director, Jenny Sazama, as a catalyst for their resignations. They said the nonprofit staffers routinely told them they needed to be more diplomatic with the district or the staffers could lose their jobs, and would often describe personal issues they faced at home when students wanted to discuss their policy agendas, which the students felt was “emotionally manipulative.”
By e-mail, Sazama did not directly respond to the allegations but in a statement said her group would work with the district to address any concerns.
“Youth on Board creates optional, safe spaces for students to support each other,” Sazama said. “The organization values the health and well-being of every participant.”
Edith Bazile, a former Boston schools administrator and past president of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts, said James’ resignation is “a clear sign that the district fails students and we need to look in a serious way at the changes that need to be made.”
“His voice is needed, but it hasn’t been honored,” she said.
Civics teacher Suzie McGlone, who has worked closely with James, said that while she was upset by the students’ resignations, she understood them.
“What they’ve discovered is right now, it isn’t possible to work within the system ... directly to make true improvements,” McGlone said. “Boston will do better as a school system and as a city when they begin to listen to what Khymani and his colleagues are saying.”
City Councilor Michelle Wu, a mayoral candidate, on Friday tweeted her support for James and the other students who had resigned, saying they spoke “truth to power.”
“They’re putting themselves on the line to fight for a better system & drive change,” she tweeted. “Thank you for your leadership.”
Another mayoral candidate, City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, who previously served on the student council as a Boston Public Schools student, said students deserved to have loud voices and power.
“No group is more impacted by those decisions than the students themselves,” Essaibi George said. “They deserve a seat, vote, and pay. All allegations should be taken seriously.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.