A controversial public Boston School Committee meeting last year that lasted nearly nine hours keeps making headlines — and for the wrong reasons. Michael Loconto, then-chairman of the committee, resigned after he was heard on a hot microphone mocking the Asian names of attendees who were waiting to speak at the contentious October hearing.
Now, there’s a second political casualty from the same meeting: Another committee member is stepping down over text messages she shared that evening.
Lorna Rivera, a professor of ethnic studies at UMass Boston and director of the Gastón Institute who was appointed to the School Committee in early 2019, submitted her resignation Friday. That October evening, prior to Loconto’s hot-mike comments, Rivera and Alexandra Oliver-Dávila, who’s now the chair of the school board, had been texting each other about the historic nature of the hearing, where the committee approved a temporary change in the admissions standards for the city’s exam schools, including eliminating the standardized test required for entry.
The momentous meeting and its ongoing fallout reflect the high-stakes nature of the school board in Boston and the racial overtones that continue to swirl — and reflect strong divisions in school policy that yet another resignation will not solve.
“Best school committee meeting ever,” Oliver-Dávila texted Rivera. “I’m trying not to cry.” The exchange happened as they listened to the outpouring of support the proposal had elicited, including moving testimony by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, said Oliver-Dávila in an interview. “Wait until the white racists start yelling at us,” Rivera texted back. “Whatever. They’re delusional,” texted Oliver-Dávila. “I hate WR,” she texted Rivera again, in reference to West Roxbury. “Sick of Westie whites,” Rivera replied. “Me too. I really feel like saying that,” Oliver-Dávila texted.
Those texts have not been made public, but Oliver-Dávila and Rivera had turned them in to city officials in response to a Globe public records request last fall for all texts exchanged between members of the school board. About a week and a half ago, Oliver-Dávila learned that their West Roxbury text exchange, which was withheld from the Globe request, had been leaked. A local reporter filed a public records request for those texts.
Rivera and Oliver-Dávila apologized profusely for their inappropriate texts in an interview. Now they are about to be released publicly without meaningful context. “I felt like it was a strategy [to leak the texts] at this moment in time,” said Oliver-Dávila, who is of Argentinian and Nicaraguan descent. “That means someone had [those texts] for a long time. I do feel it’s being weaponized against the equity work that we’re doing.”
“I was never seeking any political power,” Rivera, who is from Puerto Rico, said about her school committee appointment. They were both honored and eager to have a seat at the table as members of a body that historically has lacked Latinx representation in a district that’s about 42 percent Hispanic.
In the weeks leading up to the vote on the admissions standards, school committee members received many letters full of racialized discourse opposing any potential change to the exam school admissions policy, which education equity advocates have called to reform for years. “This is reverse discrimination at its finest,” one read, Rivera said. “[The proposal is] a criminal act against tax-payers’ will! ALL LIVES MATTER!” Oliver-Dávila said her texts were written “in a moment of so much negativity about our children of color.”
Expressing hate toward a whole neighborhood or demographic is, in and of itself, racist. And being the target of racism and saying racist things are not mutually exclusive concepts. But it’s also a matter of degree: There’s a stark difference between bias, prejudice, and racism. It’s not an excuse, Oliver-Dávila said, but the worst year of her life was when she attended a school in West Roxbury in the seventh grade and was bullied for being Latina. “It was constant bullying, calling me spic, following me home, and trying to beat me up,” she said.
Since February, Rivera has received a barrage of threatening messages and hateful social media attacks after an erroneous news report was amplified by right-wing media personalities falsely claiming that BPS was suspending advanced work classes because the majority of students enrolled in them were white and Asian. The harassment was such that she filed a Boston Police report and a UMass security report. “One was deemed a viable death threat,” Rivera said.
Rivera and Oliver-Dávila’s texts, while inappropriate and hurtful, reflected their own lived experience and prejudice. Rivera’s departure from the school board, where her goal had been to elevate the needs of marginalized groups at BPS, represents a big loss. That’s why Oliver-Dávila should stay.