US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said Wednesday that she has agreed to investigate allegations of racism at Boston Latin School at the request of several community groups, promising a thorough outside inquiry into accusations of harassment and discrimination at the elite school.
There is no timeline for the review, which will look for both criminal and civil violations of the Civil Rights Act, according to Ortiz’s office.
“We will conduct a thorough investigation into the recent complaints about racism at BLS and will go where the facts lead us,” Ortiz said in a statement.
The request for a federal inquiry came from eight civil rights and community organizations that, in a five-page complaint filed Friday, raised concerns about racial harassment and argued that a recent school department review into the racial climate at the school did not go far enough.
“We really need an independent third party like the US attorney to make sure that what happened did violate or didn’t violate [the students’ rights],” Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, said Wednesday.
Ortiz’s decision to investigate “speaks to how disturbing the incidents have been,” he said.
Among the matters raised in the five-page complaint: Parents of current and former Boston Latin students raised concerns about the “disparate discipline and suspension of black students compared with their similarly situated non-black counterparts.” The complaint also cited an alleged incident in which a teacher “greeted a black student by using the ‘n-word.’ ” The complaint said the incident was not investigated by school officials.
Allegations of widespread racism at the school were first brought to light in a YouTube video posted by two Boston Latin studentson Martin Luther King Jr. day in January. The students, Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau, who launched the #BlackAtBls social media campaign, did not respond to requests for comment on the investigation Wednesday.
Members of an informal group of hundreds of current and former Latin School parents who have come together to support BLS headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta said in a statement that they support the federal inquiry.
“We are confident in Attorney Ortiz’s ability to go ‘where the facts lead’,” the statement says. “We are anxious for the process to be brought to a conclusion in a timely manner so we in the community can move forward.”
Ortiz said that the investigation into Boston Latin will be carried out by a recently formed Civil Rights Unit in her office that has the authority to investigate charges of racism under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion in public schools and colleges and universities.
If the US attorney’s investigation turns up criminal wrongdoing, charges could be filed. But if civil violations are uncovered, the office could require remedies to force Boston Latin to reform its standards and procedures. The school, for instance, could be forced to retrain staff and comply with regular Justice Department reviews. If the school disagrees with the proposed remedies, prosecutors could seek a court order.
For example, the US Department of Justice has recently sued the city of Ferguson, Mo., where civil unrest after the shooting of a black man by police in 2014 led to protests, to compel the city to make changes in its police department and courts.
Christina Diorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for Ortiz, said that the US attorney’s office has not set a deadline for the BLS investigation and will work until a “thorough review” is completed.
Jack W. Pirozzolo, the former first assistant US attorney in Massachusetts, and now a partner at the Sidley Austin law firm, said becausethe local Civil Rights Unit in Boston is new, he expects Ortiz’s office will consult with officials in Washington, D.C., before making final decisions.
As in any federal investigation, Ortiz would have to find sufficient evidence to substantiate any civil or criminal violations.
Pirozzolo said that there is no threshold to launch an investigation, and Ortiz’s decision to look into the matter is completely discretionary.
“If there are sufficient facts for her to believe it’s appropriate to investigate, she has the discretion to start that investigation,” Pirozzolo said.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Superintendent Tommy Chang have “pledged their full cooperation in this investigation,” according to Ortiz.
Walsh and Chang released a joint statement Wednesday saying they are “happy to be fully cooperative” and that they will continue to pursue their own investigation.
“It is always our top priority that all schools provide respectful and accepting learning environments and we welcome working in collaboration to reach a positive outcome for the kids,” the statement said.
But Darnell L. Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, said the investigation is much needed, saying reports of discrimination have been widespread.
He said officials should acknowledge there’s a problem.
“We’ve got to fix this thing,” he said. “We have to own up to it and [acknowledge] that it does exist.”Jan Ransom and Jeremy C. Fox of the Globe staff contributed to this report.