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Bullying incidents at Boston’s Mission Hill K-8 School spur federal lawsuit

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

The Boston school system is grappling with a federal lawsuit over its failure to protect students from bullying and retaliation at the now defunct Mission Hill K-8 School, as well as noncompliance with disability and civil rights laws, as the financial and emotional toll from the school crisis continues to grow.

The Boston School Committee was slated to talk behind closed doors at its meeting Wednesday night about litigation involving the Mission Hill K-8 School. The agenda doesn’t name a specific lawsuit, but according to federal court records, two parents have filed a lawsuit.

A school spokesperson wouldn’t say whether the federal lawsuit was the topic of discussion but indicated other litigation also might be pending, saying “the Executive Session meeting is to discuss litigation and potential litigation regarding Mission Hill.”

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The lawsuit is the latest fallout from an explosive report in April by the law firm Hinckley Allen that found Mission Hill K-8 School endangered children by failing to address allegations of sexual abuse and pervasive bullying while also neglecting students with disabilities.

The report, which was commissioned by BPS, further found the school administration “created a hostile environment for teachers and staff” in an effort to keep complaints in-house and ultimately deemed the school a “failed” institution. The school closed in June.

BPS pursued the investigation after settling a separate federal lawsuit last year with five Mission Hill families, who alleged that BPS improperly responded to allegations involving a student sexually assaulting other students. After news of the $650,000 settlement broke, BPS received complaints from other families about potential abuse at the school.

As of May, BPS paid Hinckley Allen $253,287. BPS refused to provide an updated figure Wednesday. The law firm has recently completed a second phase of its investigation that delved into specific employees at the center of the complaints, but BPS also refused to release it Wednesday, saying it “constitutes an attorney-client privileged communication.”

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The new federal lawsuit was originally filed in May by one Mission Hill family and a second family joined in June. Specifically, they are suing the City of Boston and three former Mission Hill employees: Ayla Gavins, who retired as principal in 2019 and briefly returned as a teacher, Jenerra Williams, a teacher who later became co-leader, and Nakia Keizer, a teacher.

BPS and Gavins declined to comment. Williams and Keizer couldn’t be reached for comment. BPS wouldn’t say Wednesday whether Williams and Keizer were still employees. Court records indicate the City of Boston’s attorney is not representing Williams, Keizer, or Gavins.

The families are not named in the lawsuit to protect the children and instead use pseudonyms, with the two children identified as Joseph Doe and Casey Roe. The families are seeking both justice and a financial judgment against the defendants “in an amount sufficient to compensate them for their injuries, together with interest, costs, attorney’s fees, and punitive damages as authorized by law.”

The families’ attorney declined to comment.

According to the lawsuit, Gavins refused to comply with anti-bullying laws by not reporting incidents to the superintendent’s office and “developed a pattern of blaming the victims of bullying for the conduct of their aggressors.”

“Ms. Gavins used her authority and position to create a dangerous and unsafe environment at the MHS in which children, including Joseph and Casey, were continually bullied and subjected to physical and mental harm,” according to the lawsuit. The two teachers aided her in the effort, the lawsuit says.

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The school environment also made the students reluctant to report bullying “because they understood that their aggressors would be protected and feared making the situation worse, or simply because they felt they would not be believed” and “came to accept repeated physical and mental attacks as a normal part of the school experience,” the lawsuit stated.

Specifically, Joseph Doe experienced a barrage of bullying and gender discrimination, starting in the first grade, from other students that escalated during his time there and included being hit on the back of the head, stabbed on the side of his face with a pencil, and having balls thrown at him. At one point, a student threatened to “bring a gun to school to kill Joseph.”

Some bullying was specific to his gender-nonconforming appearance, which included “long hair and clothing in styles and colors more traditionally associated with females.“

And under circumstances that the family contends were never adequately investigated or explained, Joseph suffered a traumatic brain injury, skull fracture, and concussion in the school’s gym in the second grade that sent him to the ICU, the lawsuit said.

When he returned to school, Gavins later didn’t comply with a doctor’s note for Joseph not to participate in activities that could result in head trauma and he experienced repeated head trauma, while the school also didn’t provide a one-on-one aide and other support to help him with the disability resulting from the head injury, the lawsuit says.

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After his parents turned to school district leadership for help, Gavins appeared to be retaliating against them, discovering she “had created entries in Joseph’s student record falsely stating that he had committed suspendable[sic] disciplinary violations.

“When they questioned Ms. Gavins, she threatened to hold a disciplinary hearing against Joseph and warned the Does that ‘When you get the Superintendent’s office involved that is what happens,’” the lawsuit said.

He eventually transferred.

The other student, Casey Roe, started being victimized in pre-kindergarten, according to the lawsuit. In kindergarten, a first-grader whose conduct was the subject of the prior federal lawsuit that was settled last year, “repeatedly harassed Casey on the school grounds while they were outside, including asking to see her underwear, asking her to kiss him, trying to kiss her, physically holding her down, and removing her shoes so she couldn’t run away from him,” according to the lawsuit.

The abuse became more widespread later in the year and “boys started exposing themselves regularly in the presence of Casey and other female students, in the school halls and on various places on the playground,” and the following school year she endured even more abuse, including a classmate who urinated in her cubby and pushed her down the stairs.

“When Ms. Roe reported these acts of bullying and harassment to Ms. Gavins, she replied, ‘I don’t know what you want me to do,’” according to the lawsuit, which indicated that Gavins blamed the abuse on the girl’s disabilities.

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Gavins then created a “friendship club” for the girl and her attackers rather than devising a safety plan, according to the lawsuit, and the abuse escalated.

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.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.