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Groups urge Boston Latin School to bolster minority ranks

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Students departed Boston Latin School earlier this year.
Students departed Boston Latin School earlier this year.

Amid lingering concerns about racial issues at Boston Latin School, a coalition of civil rights groups, educators, and religious leaders is urging the city to undertake policies to increase diversity at the elite exam school.

That goal could be accomplished without violating legal restrictions on race-based admissions policies, according to a recent letter to Superintendent Tommy Chang from groups including the Boston branch of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and the Black Educators' Alliance of Massachusetts.

Maintaining policies that lead to disproportionately low numbers of black and Hispanic students could expose the district to lawsuits, the coalition says.

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"We share the superintendent's concern that Boston Latin, our flagship school, does not reflect the diversity of our city," said Matt Cregor, education project director at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, the organization that wrote the letter.

Allegations of widespread tensions at the school, and a failure by administrators to respond appropriately to them, have led some black leaders to call for the ouster of Headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta.

On Tuesday, the School Department declined to comment on a report by the Boston Herald saying that Teta was suspended for two days last month. Teta could not be reached for comment.

"Boston Public Schools does not publicly release information relating to personnel matters," the district said in a statement. "We take seriously the protection of our employees confidentiality rights."

In several past instances, however, the district has made public the discipline of school leaders, including when an acting headmaster of Madison Park Vocational Technical High School was placed on administrative leave in 2013 amid a credit-fraud investigation.

Black students at Latin School recently said its racial climate has not improved despite public scrutiny.

School-sponsored dialogues about race have been unproductive and the efforts of the student group Black Leaders Aspiring for Change and Knowledge have not been properly acknowledged by administrators, members of the group said in a new video posted online Sunday.

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"Maybe they're just waiting for the seniors to leave, or something," member Kylie Webster-Cazeau, a senior, said in the video.

Meggie Noel, the group's president and also a senior, said the school's "administration needs to know that we are going to hold them accountable. This movement has not died down, and it will continue to push forward even after we leave."

The frustration of black students became public on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when Noel and Webster-Cazeau launched a social media campaign to raise awareness, asking students and alumni to share experiences of racism using the hashtag #BlackAtBls.

A School Department investigation found administrators properly handled six race-based incidents reported over a 16-month period but mishandled a seventh. Teta later apologized for not responding more quickly to racial tensions at the school, but the local branch of the NAACP and US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz both launched investigations of racism at the school.

Some observers have said the school's racial climate has suffered along with its declining population of minority students since the Boston School Committee in 1996 eliminated racial quotas that had reserved 35 percent of exam school seats for black and Hispanic students.

Since then, the number of black students at Latin School has dropped by 60 percent. Over the same period, the school's Hispanic population has grown by less than 1 percent, even as the percentage of Hispanic students across the district has increased by almost 70 percent.

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Cregor said Tuesday that federal agencies have issued guidelines for promoting diversity in schools without using quotas. The School Department could set aside seats for students already in the district; prioritize certain neighborhoods, zip codes, or under-represented schools; or consider factors such as family income, he said.

"When we take deliberate efforts as a community to reduce racial isolation, I think, we see a more positive environment for all of our students," he said.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.