When Boston’s Mission Hill K-8 School was founded 25 years ago, it was built on the idea of promoting social justice, civic engagement, and emotional growth for its students. And through the years, the school garnered a lot of attention and was held up as a model for other public school systems to follow.
But a closer look showed that the Jamaica Plain school was far from the haven it billed itself to be. After an investigation found systemic problems with how school leaders handled bullying and sexual misconduct among students, the Boston School Committee decided to shut it down.
That was the right course of action for Boston Public Schools, which commissioned the law firm Hinckley Allen to investigate Mission Hill, a pilot school that had operated with more autonomy than most BPS schools. The investigation’s findings were indeed devastating: The school “systematically failed to protect students” from sexual abuse; it had a rampant bullying problem that was mostly left unaddressed by administrators; it neglected students with disabilities and failed to properly provide special education programs; and it failed to deliver an academically rigorous environment, with many of its students — particularly those from marginalized backgrounds — struggling to keep up with their statewide peers. The report was “the stuff of nightmares,” according to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who vowed to bring “accountability to every level of the district.”
But accountability begins with transparency, and so far the public has yet to see the full Hinckley Allen investigation. While the first phase of the report was released with redactions to maintain the privacy of individuals, the second part has remained undisclosed. Wu defended that decision, and, in a statement, her office argued that “the remaining materials focus on specific personnel details and legal analysis and will remain confidential according to public records law.”
If, however, the city wants to ensure that the faults of that school are not replicated elsewhere, it must release the rest of the law firm’s findings.
The second phase of the investigation is integral to delivering accountability — for the school’s former leaders and also for district officials who turned a blind eye to the school’s problems for too long. Former BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said it is intended to “to unearth individual and system level responses,” and it’s expected to explore issues like school funding and why administrators failed to adequately intervene on pervasive student problems in a timely manner. That means that while it’s true, as Wu says, that the rest of the investigation will likely include sensitive personnel information, there’s also much more than individual names that the public has a right to know.
To address the mayor’s concern, the city could release a redacted version of the report in order to maintain the privacy of, most importantly, students and their families. But school and district officials, particularly leaders, who may well be on their way to work at other schools, deserve a little bit of scrutiny for allowing so many rampant problems to essentially go unchecked. How can the city be serious about accountability if Mission Hill officials are able to go on to serve BPS or another public school system in a different capacity without — as far as the public is concerned — having to answer for their mistakes?
Beyond accountability, there’s the matter of understanding what exactly went wrong over the years at Mission Hill. That the school was ultimately closed shows that there was a pretty big operating failure at BPS when it came to oversight. There were several red flags in the years leading up to the Hinckley Allen report, including a $650,000 settlement after a 2017 lawsuit alleged that the school did not properly respond to a student repeatedly sexually assaulting fellow students. Why did BPS allow these problems to persist at Mission Hill, despite the many warning signs of failure?
That is not to say that the Mission Hill report inevitably includes lessons for other schools. It was a unique school with its own unique history. But its failings could underscore broader problems at BPS, and Boston residents, whose taxes were used to pay for the nearly $700,000 investigation, deserve to know how broad those problems may be.
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