The Boston Public Schools has tapped an outside law firm to investigate allegations that the district has been targeting district and school leaders of color with disciplinary proceedings.
The catalyst for the investigation is a letter a group of more than a dozen retired principals and other administrators of color sent to Superintendent Mary Skipper in August, one month before she formally began her duties, alleging that BPS has placed a disproportionate number of administrators of color on leave and is subjecting them to a process known as investigatory meetings in an effort to terminate them or force them to resign.
“Just the appearance alone raises concerns that these cases have targeted Black and Brown female and male employees who were identified as threatening,” the retired administrators wrote. “These cases seem to be orchestrated and intentional, primarily to deliver a message of fear and intimidation, a message that you will be discredited and destroyed if you speak out against racist and ineffective policies and practices.”
The former administrators didn’t identify specific individuals in their letter, but said several district leaders of color have recently been subjected to investigatory meetings and placed on administrative leave pending the final outcome of the hearings. They also added that two employees of color “have resigned rather than go through this humiliating process.”
One of the former administrators said in an interview that she knew of at least five cases of district leaders of color who were recently subjected to the process.
In a statement, Skipper emphasized she takes the concerns seriously.
“We have zero-tolerance for discrimination at Boston Public Schools,” she said. “Even still, the reality is that institutional racism exists and has had an extremely negative impact on our community for many generations. That’s why we are committed to identifying where it exists and dismantling the systems and structures that perpetuate it.”
Investigatory meetings are used broadly across BPS by the central offices and principals in its approximately 120 schools to vet potential infractions. BPS doesn’t formally track the meetings and consequently, the district was unable to provide the Globe with any data on the number of meetings held in recent years, a racial breakdown of those subjected to them, and what the outcome was for each one.
Under the district’s employee discipline policy, investigatory meetings are described as an “informal” proceeding to provide an employee with the opportunity to respond to allegations, and they can have legal counsel present. However, the proceedings can be high-stakes: Information from the meetings can be used to determine any discipline. Employees can appeal discipline at a formal hearing, according to the policy.
If allegations are serious enough in nature, an employee can be placed on paid administrative leave immediately before an investigatory meeting is held.
The policy emphasizes that enforcement of rules and regulations should be applied consistently, noting for example if there is a grace period for employees arriving late to work it should be applied to all employees. But the policy also says administrators can exercise their own discretion in assessing discipline on a case-by-case basis.
“The administrator may consider the past record in determining the degree and severity of the discipline to be imposed on an employee found guilty of the immediate offense,” the policy says. “In such instances, an employee may merit a harsher discipline for a seemingly minor infraction where the employee has been given warnings numerous times in the past for similar offenses.”
The letter and the investigation, which was first reported by Schoolyard News, come as many BPS employees have questioned the district’s commitment to eliminating racism within the organization, particularly as it pertains to students. For instance, state data has indicated for years that the district disproportionately punishes students of color and disproportionately segregates students of color with disabilities from their peers.
The district earned low marks last year among more than 500 central office staffers who took a workplace survey when asked whether “BPS is structured and organized to be an anti-racist organization” and whether they felt empowered to enact anti-racist leadership.
Since then, two cases in particular have put employees on edge about potential consequences they might face if they voice concerns about policies or practices they perceive as racially biased, unfair, or not in students’ best interests.
In May, Aketa Narang Kapur, a former administrator who briefly oversaw English learner programs, said she was threatened with termination for repeatedly raising questions about BPS’s practice of steering students who lacked English fluency into regular classrooms and reporting her concerns to the US Department of Justice. Kapur resigned, she said, as BPS was building a case that she violated conflict-of-interest policies by improperly obtaining two laptops for her staff from a former business partner.
BPS has denied retaliating against her.
And in December a Suffolk Superior Court jury determined that BPS fired a gym teacher who is Black in retaliation for filing racial discrimination complaints and awarded him $1.7 million. Although the teacher wasn’t an administrator, the verdict reaffirmed fears among a number of educators that BPS might retaliate against them if they raise concerns about discrimination and unfair practices. BPS is appealing the court decision.
“Districtwide administrators are well aware of the manner in which Black managers are often treated,” said Edith Bazile, a retired BPS administrator who signed the letter, in an interview. “There is a culture in BPS and it’s historical and it has gotten more toxic recently, with the overt targeting of Black leaders in the district.”
Natashia Tidwell of the law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr is heading up the investigation.
Skipper is also keeping communication open with the retired administrators. She recently met with Albert Holland, a retired administrator whose signature appears first on the letter, “in the spirit of strengthening our practices to address any known issues.” She characterized the meeting as productive in her statement.
Holland, a former principal and a former special assistant to the superintendent who worked with Boston Latin School in 2016 on racial climate issues, said in an interview that he felt encouraged by the conversation he had with Skipper and was hopeful that she will create a work environment that is fair and where people feel respected.
“I want people who dedicated their lives to children to be able to finish out their careers and do what they love, and feel supported in their work to make the school district better,” he said.
The retired administrators asked Skipper to undertake the investigation and to tighten up oversight of the investigatory meetings.
“There should be a review board established that has some type of oversight that safeguards against the misuse and abuse of personnel practices that result in disparate targeting of staff of color, disproportionately Black and Brown,” the letter stated.
Barbara Fields, a retired BPS administrator who signed the letter and used to oversee the district’s racial equity efforts, characterized the current environment in the central offices as “racially hostile.”
“There’s no way we can move the district forward academically, socially, and emotionally for our young people if we have staff feeling this way,” she said in an interview.
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.