Boston’s Mission Hill K-8 School endangered and failed children for years by overlooking allegations of sexual abuse and bullying and neglecting students with disabilities, a scathing investigative report released Wednesday found.
The 189-page report by law firm Hinckley Allen was sparked by multiple complaints from parents that Mission Hill officials were ignoring their concerns about bullying incidents, and separately, allegations by five families that one student had repeatedly sexually abused their children.
In their report, investigators said they learned of even more allegations of bullying and sexual misconduct at the school, as well as additional examples of officials’ lax response to such reports. In brutal wording, they said there was “pervasive indifference” by administrators to allegations of serious misconduct, and termed the school a “failed” institution.
The findings from the investigation are so damning that BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius proposed to the School Committee Wednesday night that the city take the extraordinary step of closing the school at the end of the academic year in June.
“As an educator for over 30 years, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to read,” said Cassellius in an interview, noting that most of the misconduct preceded her tenure. “It is important that we’re holding ourselves accountable right now and validating these families who have had pain for many, many years, and beginning the healing process.”
Cassellius said the report will prompt district reforms, including greater oversight over autonomous pilot schools such as Mission Hill to ensure those schools, which have more freedom over curriculum and hiring, are following necessary rules.
Investigators said they found a “cult-like” climate at the academically struggling school and an intolerance of dissent. Concluding the school has “little culture worth saving,” the report served to validate employees and families who had reported incidents of harm to children and ostracization from the school’s leadership.
The report also suggested some school employees put their own self-interests before that of children, including by using a separate e-mail server and deleting at least three key employee e-mail accounts while the school was under investigation.
The investigators found, through 65 interviews and 2 million documents, “a picture of a failed school, one that largely hid behind its autonomous status and the philosophical ideals of [its founder and former leaders], often to the detriment of the Boston Public School students it served.”
Mayor Michelle Wu said she was “devastated” about the abuse.
“While closure is never an easy decision, in this case, it is the right one,” Wu said, vowing to bring “accountability to every level of the district.”
The report also adds to the debate that has swirled around the Mission Hill’s status since its two co-principals were placed on leave in August, with the school’s defenders repeatedly testifying at School Committee meetings that the district has destabilized the school. (Investigators say they are still looking into the e-mail issues and who was responsible for which failures.)
“It feels like the district made this [closure] decision last August and spent this year finding the justification,” said Allison Cox, cochair of the school’s governing board and a Mission Hill parent. “That is not to say that there are not students who experienced harm, but there is an awful lot of good at Mission Hill that they’ve refused to acknowledge exists.”
The potential closure of Mission Hill means its roughly 200 students in kindergarten through eighth grade would need new schools for September. The district has identified 400 seats at nearby high-quality schools. The School Committee plans to vote on May 5 on Cassellius’ recommendation.
“How many adults were asleep at the wheel?” committee member Brandon Cardet-Hernandez asked at the meeting. “We have broken a lot of trust.”
The report revealed that shortcomings of the school’s response to the sexual abuse allegations went beyond the case that made headlines in August. That’s when BPS reached a $650,000 settlement in a lawsuit brought by five Mission Hill families over their six young children’s reports of repeated sexual abuse by the same student. They contended the school failed to adequately act, enabling the abuse to continue.
“My clients’ interest from the get-go was about having some accountability for what was going on and the lack of responsiveness from the administration about their concerns, which were not being taken seriously,” said Dan Heffernan, the lawyer for the five families. “It’s validating that the suit they brought has been a catalyst to reform and will hopefully bring about systemic changes.”
While investigators pointed to some institutional failings by BPS, they lay much of the blame for the school’s problems on a former administrator they labeled “MH Admin 3.” That administrator’s tenure coincided with former principal Ayla Gavins.
Gavins, who no longer works for BPS, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
The administrator, investigators wrote, “cultivated and tolerated a culture of pervasive indifference to sexual misconduct, bullying and bias-based conduct and toward rules, regulations and policies, and created a climate of hostility and intimidation toward parents and staff who questioned or disagreed with that culture,” undermining student safety.
During Gavins’s 12-year tenure, which ended in summer 2019, the school “hid behind lofty goals of social justice and social-emotional growth for students while failing to deliver basic academic and safety services,” the report said.
The report details witnesses’ accounts of the principal’s response to the the case of the student identified in court records as “A.J.,” who was accused in the families’ lawsuit of inappropriately touching fellow students and digitally penetrating one from 2014 to 2016. Gavins told parents who complained they should “pull their kids out,” and that A.J. “had a right to be” there, the report says. A staffer recalled hearing Gavins say that parents were “organizing against” A.J., and other loyal employees also voiced concerns that the student would be stigmatized and criminalized because he was Black, the report says.
Mission Hill School records contained only a handful of incident reports about A.J.’s sexualized conduct, the investigation found, while internal documents, e-mails, notes, and summaries showed allegations of sexual misconduct with more than 30 incidents involving at least 11 different students.
The school’s handling of A.J.’s sexual conduct “exemplify the tension between the Mission Hill School’s public commitment to serving young students of color and its underlying obligation as a public school to protect the well-being of all its students,” investigators said.
Investigators found 102 documented incidents of sexually inappropriate behaviors by students from September 2013 to February 2021. Of those, only 45 were recorded on official incident reports.
In another instance of sexual misconduct involving students, Gavins “vigorously defended” an accused student, arguing to a parent that the student “could not have intended to sexually assault” someone because “research shows” that children “cannot have sexual intent,” the report says.
The school also failed to properly provide special-education services due to its philosophy that “each child is special and learns at their own pace,” investigators found. “This led to failures to diagnose serious learning challenges, such as dyslexia, and to disregard illiteracy in older students.”
The investigation found that the school administrators’ consistent inaction led to persistent bullying, particularly toward gender-nonconforming students. The school’s practice of putting the victim and aggressor together afterwards to talk ran counter to BPS policies and led to a culture in which bullying was normalized, condoned, and unaddressed, the report said.
The school’s cultural problems have persisted even since Gavins’s departure, investigators found.
“The current educational climate of Mission Hill School reflects the same tensions and deleterious cultural values that defined [Gavins’s] tenure,” the report says, “and allowed troubling patterns of unsafe sexual behavior, bullying, and physical violence to continue unabated.”
The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to email@example.com.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.