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EDITORIAL

It’s not enough to shut down ‘failed’ Mission Hill School. BPS owes the public some answers on the scandal.

In the face of the widespread negligence documented in a bombshell 189-page report, shutting down the Jamaica Plain school was an easy call.

A playground by the Mission Hill School in Jamaica Plain.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In a rare move, the school committee voted on Thursday night to close the troubled Mission Hill K-8 Pilot School, after a damning investigation documented widespread educational malpractice at the Jamaica Plain institution and repeated failures to protect students from sexual abuse and bullying. Superintendent Brenda Cassellius had recommended the step, and Mayor Michelle Wu was on board with the closure too, making the vote something of a foregone conclusion.

In the face of such widespread negligence described in the 189-page report, shutting down the school was an easy call. But now the city has two tougher tasks ahead: helping the children who were systematically deprived of the educational services they needed at the school, and examining why none of the warnings about the school over the years had roused the district to do anything until recently.

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Pilot schools are part of the school district, but operate with some autonomy over their budget and curriculum. Mission Hill purportedly offered a democratic, “progressive” education emphasizing creativity, social-emotional learning, and racial justice while downplaying test scores. But as the report indicated, those homilies to progressive values masked the reality of a school that “failed to deliver an academically rigorous education to all students and to provide special education services. . . in an equitable fashion.” In a Globe op-ed, a former teacher at the school recalled how she was initially thrilled to see students at Mission Hill learning at their own pace; “At the time, I didn’t know that not a single one of them knew how to read,” she wrote.

The school’s principal and some teachers simply ignored state special education laws, in their effort to stay true to the school’s philosophy and avoid what they viewed as stigmatizing students. According to the report, an administrator boasted — in writing — of breaking the law by grouping some special needs students in inclusive classrooms. “We were told that it could not be done, that it was illegal. Well, we did it anyway,” the administrator wrote. For similarly ideological reasons, the school routinely failed to discipline students for bullying or sexual abuse, creating what observers said was an often-dangerous atmosphere.

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For instance: investigators found more than 100 incidents involving alleged sexually inappropriate behaviors by Mission Hill School students in the span of seven and a half years, but fewer than half of them were appropriately recorded.

With the school’s closure, the district should prioritize placement for the roughly 200 students in K-8 grades who will need new schools next year. In a statement, BPS said there are approximately 400 available seats at nearby schools and that Mission Hill families will be granted a special enrollment period to find a new school. But BPS should let those 200 families simply choose where they want their children to go.

The district’s responsibility doesn’t end there. As Emily Kaplan, the former teacher, wrote, Mission Hill’s negligence “will leave lifelong emotional and academic scars on students.” That’s especially true of special need students. The district should also make counseling and tutoring available to Mission Hill students.

The district also needs to reckon with its own responsibility for these failures.

Cassellius told the school committee that the next phase of the investigation will be to examine the role of school and district officials “to unearth individual and system level responses.” “As long as I am superintendent, anyone who works at BPS, regardless of position or status, will be held to the same high standard of accountability Boston parents expect and deserve,” she said in a statement to the Globe. Cassellius had previously said that the report will also result in some reforms, including more oversight over pilot schools, but did not elaborate further.

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As BPS crafts reforms in response to Mission Hill, the district should be careful not to scapegoat pilot schools in general. Pilot schools have greater autonomy over their budget and curriculum decisions, but they still have to comply with federal and state law, as well as district rules. As the report notes, “autonomous schools like Mission Hill School do not operate in a vacuum.”

“Mission Hill is not evidence of the failures of autonomous schools. It is evidence of systemic failure by BPS,” said Will Austin, chief executive officer of the Boston Schools Fund.

Indeed, the district had ample warning that something was amiss at Mission Hill. There have been at least four other probes into the school in the last seven years. And in August, the district reached a $650,000 settlement to a lawsuit filed by five families who alleged that the Mission Hill school failed to respond properly to an elementary-aged student’s repeated sexual assault of fellow students. The lawsuit was first filed in 2017 — five years ago.

What else might the district have known? City councilor Michael Flaherty is pushing BPS to provide more information on the sexual assault and harassment incidents at the school that have been reported to the district. And the office of Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden said it’s reviewing the report for “any crimes or incidents where mandatory reporting of sexual assault allegations did or did not occur.” Teachers have an affirmative obligation to report abuse.

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Since at least 2015, central office administrators at BPS overlooked serious wrongdoing — potentially even crimes — at Mission Hill, and it is important to hold those individuals accountable. Wu, the school committee, and the superintendent must shine a light on BPS’ internal structures to expose where the system failed.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.