Boston Public Schools will pay $650,000 to five families who alleged the Mission Hill K-8 School improperly responded to an elementary-aged student’s sexual assaults of fellow students, allowing their six children to be victimized, court records show.
A federal judge on Monday accepted the settlement, in which BPS admitted no wrongdoing. The agreement came after the judge ruled the parents’ allegations carried enough weight to “shock the conscience.”
The settlement, first reported by Universal Hub, was reached after the parents alleged the school failed to protect their children from a boy’s repeated unwanted sexual touching, exposing of genitals, and kissing from September 2014 through November 2016. All children involved were age 4 or 5 in 2014, court records state.
The families of two girls who brought the initial lawsuit will each receive $88,527 after attorneys’ fees, with the parents of the four other children receiving slightly less in damages for each child.
Despite a change in leadership, the Mission Hill K-8 School has continued to face allegations of improper handling of misconduct. Earlier this month, co-leaders Geralyn McLaughlin and Jenerra Williams were placed on paid administrative leave and a search is on for their replacement, a BPS spokesman said.
Neither McLaughlin nor Williams could immediately be reached for comment Friday evening.
The leaders’ removal came after an internal investigation found credible evidence that the school didn’t act appropriately after receiving complaints about at least one student being mistreated between 2014 and 2019, the spokesman said. BPS declined to release the investigation Friday, but said it was a separate case than the one involving the settlement.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius has directed additional training, support, and resources to the school to ensure a “safe, culturally affirming, and welcoming learning environment for all” students, the spokesman said, adding: “The physical, social, and emotional health of our students is the top priority of the Boston Public Schools.”
In the case that reached settlement, parents alleged in an August 2018 federal complaint that school staffers were aware the student, identified as “A.J.”, had forcibly exposed other students’ genitals and touched and kissed their genital areas prior to October 2014. But the school took no actions such as closer monitoring, assigning an aide, expulsion, or warning staff to protect other students, the complaint said.
Around October 2014, A.J. “digitally penetrated” one of the plaintiffs’ daughters, prompting a teacher to file a report called a “51A,” which launches an investigation by the state Department of Children and Families and is required under the state’s “mandated reporter” law, according to the complaint.
According to the complaint, the school’s then-principal, Ayla Gavins, discouraged staff from filing 51A reports and one teacher was fired for filing one. The city disputed the complaint’s facts; Gavins, who no longer works for BPS and was dismissed from the suit because of qualified immunity, which protects state and local officials from personal liability, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The plaintiff parents also alleged that teachers weren’t adequately trained to file 51A reports; out of many known sexual assaults involving A.J., only one led to a 51A report, court documents said.
One of the girls “lived in fear” of being assaulted again by A.J., who remained in the same classroom with her for several months, the complaint said. Even when he was moved, he still interacted with her, which retraumatized her and “deprived her of her education,” it said.
During the 2014-15 school year, at least four other girls and a boy were sexually assaulted by the same student, the complaint said.
The following year, the parents of a different girl asked for a safety plan, the complaint said, and Gavins told staff not to provide one or respond to the parents’ requests, according to the complaint. That year, A.J. groped that girl in her chest and genital areas, and forced her using threats of violence to kiss him and expose her genitals, according to the complaint. Staff witnessed these assaults and reported them to Gavins, the complaint said.
The following school year, the girl was assigned to sit next to A.J. and he again assaulted her, forcibly kissing her and touching her chest, which staff reported to Gavins, according to the complaint. In October 2016, A.J. grabbed the girl’s genitals over her clothes while they were on the playground, the complaint said.
The school leaders’ inaction to protect students after learning of A.J.’s repeated sexual assaults “was deliberately indifferent and unreasonable,” and traumatized the victims, the complaint said.
“The sexual assaults and atmosphere created by the unchecked sexual assaults caused severe disruption of the minor plaintiffs’ education,” the complaint said.
In response, the city argued the complaint was based on “factual falsehoods.” The city also said the school district is responsible for educating all students, not just the victims, and given their ages, it could not involve the police.
It was “an extremely delicate situation, which [BPS] addressed as best it could,” the city said. “[BPS] took developmentally appropriate, swift action in trying to ensure that both the Plaintiffs’ and the alleged perpetrators educational and emotional needs were met.”
US District Judge Allison Burroughs in 2019 allowed the lawsuit’s main points to continue. She wrote that the parents’ allegations that school staff knew of other sexual assaults by A.J. but the principal discouraged them from filing 51A reports that would prompt investigations, the subsequent sexual assaults on the plaintiffs’ daughters were a “foreseeable and direct result of Defendants’ actions.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.