In a court filing this week, Boston Public Schools deflected blame from a massive scandal at the Mission Hill K-8 School that led to the school’s closure last year.
The city’s motion Monday to dismiss a federal lawsuit by two families denies any liability and largely blames the former principal of the school, Ayla Gavins, for not following the district’s policies on special education, student discipline, and bullying. The motion stands in contrast to an outside law firm’s report, commissioned by BPS, that found district officials knew Mission Hill was plagued by problems for years and failed to adequately act, endangering children.
The filing was Boston’s first response to the lawsuit, which was filed last spring by two families who alleged the school failed to properly act on information to protect their children, one from ongoing bullying and one from repetitive bullying and sexual abuse by fellow students. In its motion, the city argued plaintiffs failed to meet the legal threshold for the district to be held legally liable.
“The City cannot be held vicariously liable under [federal law] for the actions of their non-policymaking employees, such as Gavins,” the motion said.
The district also seemed to blame the Mission Hill governing board — made up of parents and educators — which oversaw Mission Hill because as a pilot school, it had more autonomy than other BPS schools. In its motion, the city said the governing board would have reviewed data on bullying reports as part of Gavins’ performance evaluation.
The lawsuit, which seeks both justice and punitive financial damages against the defendants, does not name the families involved to protect the children and instead uses pseudonyms Joseph Doe and Casey Roe, who attended the school from 2015 to 2019 and 2012 to 2016, respectively.
The families are suing the district and three of the school’s former educators: 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. According to the plaintiffs’ complaint, 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.” The two teachers aided her in the effort, the lawsuit says.
BPS and lawyers for Gavins and Williams did not respond to a request for comment. Keizer’s attorney declined to comment.
The lawsuit came after an explosive report in April by the law firm Hinckley Allen that found Mission Hill endangered children by failing to address allegations of sexual abuse and pervasive bullying while also neglecting students with disabilities. The report found the school administration “created a hostile environment” for staff to keep complaints in-house and ultimately deemed the school a “failed” institution. The findings led to the school’s closure in June.
As of May, BPS paid Hinckley Allen $253,287; on Tuesday, the district did not respond to a Globe request for the total amount it paid to the law firm for the investigation.
BPS pursued the investigation after settling a separate federal lawsuit in 2021 with five Mission Hill families, who alleged the district improperly responded to allegations involving a student sexually assaulting other students. After news of the $650,000 settlement broke, BPS received more complaints from other families at the school.
According to the latest lawsuit, students Joseph Doe and Casey Roe experienced escalating bullying but grew reluctant to report it because the school protected their aggressors and made the situations worse. Parents of both students said Gavins blamed the victims and when parents sought help from district leaders, Gavins appeared to retaliate against them, according to the suit.
While Monday’s court filing laid blame on Gavins, a September report by Hinckley Allen found significant fault by BPS central offices, saying district leaders at the highest levels for years were aware of and failed to thoroughly respond to allegations of mishandled abuse and bullying at the school. The report blamed “a deleterious Central Staff culture,” which led to a breakdown in communication and an indifference at times for the children in their care. It also noted central office staff had shoddy record-keeping practices and a lack of urgency to complaints, forcing parents to resort to litigation and the news media for help.
The district argues a 2015 investigative report on the school was “insufficient to demonstrate that BPS had a custom, policy, or practice” of ignoring bullying or providing special education services to students. The 2015 report blamed Gavins for failing to address issues around appropriate use of restraints of students, but made no findings regarding bullying, the motion said.
But the Hinckley Allen report made clear BPS should have done more than it did after receiving the 2015 report, noting it seemed to fall through the cracks of rapidly changing superintendents.
The motion leans on parts of the Hinckley Allen investigation that support its argument, saying it found “that the Mission Hill School and Gavins, not the Boston Public Schools, had created and fostered a culture of minimizing bullying complaints and sexualized conduct of students.”
The city also made other legal arguments for why the lawsuit should be dismissed, including that Casey’s allegations that a kindergartner asked to kiss her, see her underwear, and tried to kiss her “are without any gender-based animus.”
“Students, unlike adults, engage in conduct that would not be tolerated among adults because students are still learning how to interact appropriately,” the motion said. “Damages are not available for teasing and name calling even where the names may target differences in gender.”
The city also argued the court should dismiss the families’ claims the district failed to provide their students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education because the families did not “exhaust” all necessary administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit.
Naomi Martin can be reached at email@example.com.