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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Boston School Committee votes to shutter Mission Hill School

Mission Hill K- 8 School in Jamaica Plain.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston’s Mission Hill K-8 School will close at the end of June, and the nearly 200 students who attend there will have to find new schools for the fall.

That was the decision of the School Committee Thursday night after a scathing investigation released last week called Mission Hill a “failed school” and found previous school leaders endangered students by ignoring ongoing sexual abuse and bullying while also neglecting students with disabilities.

“What happened here was truly egregious,” School Committee member Brandon Cardet-Hernandez said before Thursday night’s vote. “I would not be doing my job if I didn’t vote yes for closure.”

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The committee’s quick action follows closure recommendations from Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who commissioned the third-party investigation, and Mayor Michelle Wu.

As enrollment has declined over the last 15 years, the district has closed schools based on a number of factors including building conditions, academic performance, and declining popularity. But this appears to be the first time in recent history the district will close a school after an investigation documented misconduct. Mission Hill’s failure to meet academic standards and provide special education, also highlighted in the investigation, played a part in the decision, according to district documents.

Five committee members voted Thursday to close the school. Committee member Rafaela Polanco abstained, saying that closing the school would further traumatize students and families at the school. Member Lorena Lopera didn’t attend the meeting.

The school, located in Jamaica Plain, is billed as a haven for social justice, hands-on and social emotional learning, and a diverse student body; the school is 34 percent white, 30 percent Latino, and 28 percent Black. Its supporters have questioned why the district is closing the school when the educators accused of wrongdoing are no longer running it.

At Thursday night’s meeting, parents of current students said investigators never asked their thoughts on the state of the school and said the closure is removing their children from a safe, nurturing, and academically challenging environment.

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“You’re punishing the many students who love Mission Hill School and removing the important stability that the school has provided,” said Toyoko Orimoto, mother to two children at Mission Hill, who urged the committee to keep the school open.

Another Mission Hill parent and member of the school’s governing board questioned the district’s motives, asking whether the district was closing the school to prevent the state from taking the district into receivership as the state reviews the district’s progress meeting the needs of special education students, fixing transportation problems, and other goals.

“I find it difficult to believe that this recommendation, coming years after the most serious harm occurred, is motivated by current safety concerns,” said Allison Cox.

But other parents at the meeting painted a different picture of the school, one that echoed the problems detailed in the investigation. Asha LeRay said her daughter, who now attends another school, cries whenever they drive by the Mission Hill building.

Cassellius sought the outside investigation last year after five families won a $650,000 settlement from the district after alleging that a student had repeatedly sexually assaulted their children on campus.

The 189-page report by law firm Hinckley Allen reviewed a 10-year period at Mission Hill and found even more allegations of abuse and little response from administrators. They largely blamed a former principal they labeled “MH Admin 3,″ who headed the school for 12 years until 2019.

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According to the report, the former principal “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.”

The school leader also “fostered a culture of non-compliance” when it came to special education, according to the review, and many students with learning disabilities didn’t get the support they needed and is guaranteed under the law. As far as teaching reading, writing, and math, the investigators concluded Mission Hill failed to provide rigorous academic instruction.

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 blistering report only raises more questions about how the school and district handled allegations at the school, according to city leaders. Over the six years before the Hinkley Allen investigation, BPS received multiple parent complaints, including concerns about sexual abuse at the school, and investigated some internally.

“How did abuse and dysfunction of this scale go unnoticed and unaddressed by the central office?” Will Austin, the chief executive officer of Boston School Fund, an organization that raises money to increase seats at high-demand schools, asked the School Committee at its Thursday meeting. “The system was not doing its job managing schools or chose to look the other way.”

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City Councilor Michael Flaherty, a former prosecutor, asked the district Wednesday to provide a breakdown of total sexual assault and harassment incidents that were reported to Boston Public Schools.

Flaherty also wants the district to list the incidents at the school that were not handled in compliance with state law and explain why the district hired an outside law firm to investigate the school rather than consult the Boston police.

Hinckley Allen also will conduct two more investigations focusing on school and district staff misconduct along with safeguards the district can create to ensure schools are safe for students.

In the meantime, parents and students at the school will have to find a new place to study for the fall, long after the regular assignment process. The district will hold a special registration round for Mission Hill students and will assign transition specialists to help students, Cassellius said.

The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.


Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.