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Report faults BPS leaders for failing to adequately respond to Mission Hill school problems

The now-shuttered Mission Hill School in Jamaica Plain.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston school district leaders at the highest levels were aware of and failed to thoroughly respond to several allegations of abuse and bullying at the now-shuttered Mission Hill K-8 School, according to a report released Wednesday night that faults the central offices for a breakdown in communication and an indifference at times for the children in their care.

The report by the law firm Hinckley Allen, which was commissioned by Boston Public Schools, attributed the failure to adequately respond to the complaints to “significant and recurring manifestations of a deleterious Central Staff culture” but also stressed there are many hard-working employees who have risen above that culture.

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The culture in many ways impeded the investigators from being able to fully investigate the lapses in the central offices that allowed allegations of bullying and sexual abuse and a failure to provide legally required special education services to persist for nearly a decade.

Often investigators encountered former and retired employees who were unwilling to be interviewed and were unable to confirm several allegations or how central offices responded to them because of shoddy record-keeping or a lack of any documentation, according to the report.

Investigators also said former top leaders could not recall incidents that occurred many years ago.

For instance, former interim superintendent John McDonough ordered his own investigation in 2015 into a large number of complaints made by parents at Mission Hill. But he told investigators he couldn’t recall receiving a copy of the report or discussing it with his successor Tommy Chang, even though investigators had documentation indicating he had received a copy or at least a briefing. It also appeared that McDonough didn’t inform Chang about the report, which investigators pressed him about, according to the report.

“At the end of the day, I did not have a discussion with Tommy about that,” McDonough told investigators. “I don’t have an answer as to why or why not; MHS was not the only thing on my plate. I had many things on my plate. Was it important? Absolutely. Do I wish it went otherwise? Absolutely.”

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Investigators determined that an addendum to the report McDonough commissioned eventually was distributed to nine people in Chang’s administration, including Chang. But Chang also couldn’t recall receiving the addendum or the original report, even though investigators had documentation once again that he did get at least a briefing.

Former interim superintendent Laura Perille, who replaced Chang for a year, said she never got a list of pending litigation or recent investigations. Former superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who stepped down in June, said she learned of the Mission Hill allegations two years into her tenure and brought in Hinckley Allen to investigate after initially having the investigator McDonough hired to do a separate review.

Wednesday’s report is the third to be completed by Hinckley Allen in less than six months regarding the wide-ranging allegations of abuse and bullying between students dating back to at least 2014, which have prompted two federal lawsuits. The allegations also span the tenures of four superintendents, potentially providing insight into how high the stakes can be when district leadership is repeatedly churning.

The first report in April 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.

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The report further found the school’s 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.

Cassellius pursued the investigation after BPS settled a 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.

Earlier this year, two families filed a new lawsuit in federal court over the district’s 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.

Wednesday’s report noted that parents had to resort to litigation and appeal to the media for help because of the central offices’ lack of response to their complaints. Some parents described“the problem as an ‘absence of urgency’ on the part of district officials.” In fact, one unnamed senior staff member told investigators that he or she didn’t respond for at least 48 hours to any inquiry and “stated that if it’s really an emergency, the person who tried to reach the senior staff member will try again.”

The report represents one of the first high-profile issues that Superintendent Mary Skipper has had to publicly respond to with remedies since officially starting her job on Monday.

“What happened with students and families at Mission Hill can never happen again,” Skipper said during the meeting.

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Skipper is taking several steps to address the findings. Among them: She is ordering an audit of BPS systems and protocols and the implementation of those protocols, leaning on the expertise of an independent auditing firm; reorganizing the district’s senior leadership team, breaking schools into various regions, so they have better oversight by central office administrators; and adding four new positions to the Success Boston office, which investigates complaints of student bullying. The report noted the office does good work but is short-staffed.

Correspondent Grace Gilson contributed to this report.

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.

Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misspelled the law firm Hinckley Allen. The Globe regrets the error.


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