Near the end of April 2015, interim district superintendent John McDonough sensed trouble smoldering at Boston Latin School.
He had received a letter from two city councilors demanding a meeting and immediate action to address allegations of racism at the school. McDonough, in turn, sent an urgent e-mail on April 28, 2015, to his chief of staff seeking a schoolwide dialogue on race.
“I am afraid that anything less than this will be problematic,” he warned.
He was right.
It took more than a year for schoolwide discussions about race to happen, and before they did, controversy erupted over concerns that administrators at the elite exam school moved too slowly to deal with the furor.
Now, as the school looks to heal after a tumultuous year, internal e-mails, a district report, and interviews with key players offer insight into the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in a crisis that led to federal and local investigators in the school and that prompted the resignations of the school’s headmaster and an assistant headmaster.
They also highlight a city divide — inside and outside the school — between those demanding change at the helm and those whose veins flow with “purple blood.”
There were signs of racial turmoil at Latin School some five months before McDonough’s urgent call for a schoolwide discussion of race.
The problems surfaced during a conversation among students over a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager. Their conversation, via Twitter, quickly descended into racial insults.
The next day, on Nov. 25, 2014, a group of students, including Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau, leaders of the student group BLS BLACK, rushed into history teacher Cheralyn Pinchem’s classroom and showed her the offensive tweets on their cellphones.
“I’m reading through it and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ ’’ Pinchem recalled in an interview.
The tweets — assembled in a binder — were presented to administrators. The students waited to hear back, but weeks — then months — passed, Pinchem said.
Elma Edwards, vice president of BLS BLACK, said the group expected consequences for students who made racist remarks. They wanted quick and robust action from their administrators, including a schoolwide dialogue on race.
“I just felt uncomfortable that the school administrators knew there was a racial divide and it took so long for them to acknowledge it,’’ said Edwards, who graduated in June.
Discipline and forums
In an interview last week, Lynne Mooney Teta, who resigned last month after nine years as headmaster, dismissed the notion that her administration was slow to address the Twitter incident and to tackle the cultural climate at Boston Latin. She said the school took a series of immediate steps in response, and committed the past year to integrating “thoughtful, deliberate, and sustainable” conversations about race.
“I absolutely reject that nothing was done to address race and discrimination until May 2016,’’ Teta said.
The headmaster disciplined four students involved in the offensive tweets incident and laid out an action plan for improving the school’s culture, according to Teta and an executive summary of the district’s Office of Equity report released in February. (Administrators are limited in what they can reveal about student disciplinary cases because of privacy laws.)
To address the race issue, the school’s Student Council conducted a voluntary survey on Dec. 16, 2014, on what students were discussing online, including race. Then there was a forum the following January. But just nine of the school’s 2,400 students attended, along with 15 faculty members, the Office of Equity document said.
In response to the racist tweets, and a separate controversy involving sexting by some students that emerged around the same time as the Twitter incident, the school invited Suffolk County prosecutor Jackie Lamont to talk about safe and proper behavior online in a series of assemblies. But Lamont’s March presentation was postponed until May because of bad weather, the e-mails said.
Students in BLS BLACK — the acronym stands for Black Leaders Aspiring for Change and Knowledge — felt the school’s efforts were not enough and contacted City Councilor Tito Jackson, imploring him to intervene, according to e-mails from McDonough, Jackson’s office, and other school officials.
Waiting for more action
Jackson, along with Councilor Josh Zakim, wrote to McDonough at the start of March 2015, emphasizing the “racially charged and hostile content’’ of the complaints and noting concerns that “little or no action” had been taken to ensure students were free of bullying, according to the e-mails, which included Jackson’s letter.
McDonough sought answers from Teta, who said she was taking several steps.
“We are very concerned as a school community about what these series of incidents said about students’ use of social media, their decision-making, and our core value of respect,’’ Teta wrote to McDonough in an e-mail March 1, 2015.
In another e-mail to McDonough the same day, she explained the actions taken in response to both the sexting and racist tweets.
One of the students involved in the sexting incident got serious discipline, she wrote. But in the tweeting incident, discipline “was much fuzzier.”
The four students in that case were given “individualized interventions,” which included verbal warnings and a conversation about how their conduct reflected on themselves and the school, the equity report said.
McDonough could not be reached for comment this week.
Teta, seeking to explain the discipline in the race-based tweets in her e-mail to McDonough, pointed to the district’s new code of conduct that “raises the bar so high for discipline’’ that administrators find it harder to punish students “for behavior that in the past we could.”
Indeed, aiming to curb out-of-school suspensions, state law now requires a more progressive form of student discipline that encourages counseling, support, and other intervention.
In separate e-mails to Jackson, Teta assured the councilor that she was eager to work with community partners to address concerns about racism on a schoolwide level. She asked for his assistance.
At a meeting March 23, 2015, district officials, directed by McDonough, encouraged Teta to develop a comprehensive plan to address race, including holding a full day of discussions for the school, the Office of Equity document said.
But by April 28, 2015, no schoolwide dialogue on race had taken place, prompting McDonough’s urgent e-mail. More time passed, and as 2016 began, the schoolwide dialogue had not happened.
Concerns go public
More than a year after the original Twitter incident, Noel and Webster-Cazeau had had enough. They posted a video on YouTube on Jan. 18, 2016, criticizing administrators for ignoring or taking too lightly complaints of racism. They launched a Twitter campaign for current and former students to share their experiences at #BlackAtBls.
“You were waiting for someone to say ‘OK, we are not going to tolerate this,’ ” Pinchem, the BLS BLACK adviser, told the Globe.
Noel and Webster-Cazeau did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
When the video was released, everyone took notice. The news media began swarming. Alumni were tweeting or calling the mayor. Black advocates were demanding a federal investigation.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh and his new superintendent, Tommy Chang, heaped praise on the students and urged action. The Office of Equity began investigating.
Other complaints were pouring in. A BLS BLACK meeting in January generated approximately 90 racial or ethnic allegations at the school. More than 80 were previously unreported.
Around February, things were getting heated. State Representative Nick Collins, a Latin School graduate, said he began getting calls from alumni and parents telling him to get out in front of the issue.
“My interest was getting things right at Latin School,’’ he said.
Walsh also held a meeting with Teta to highlight the urgency of the situation.
Teta said in the interview she does not recall discussing a schoolwide dialogue with McDonough in April 2015. Furthermore, she said she did not want a “one-shot’’ attempt late in the academic year to tackle an issue as complex as race.
She said she decided to spend the 2015-2016 academic year fully integrating “thoughtful, ongoing, and sustainable” conversations about race into the school. And she was working with students, parents, and faculty to make it happen.
Teta said that early in the school year — at a revised orientation in September and mandatory assemblies in February — she made it clear to students of their right to a free education without discrimination, warning them of consequences for bad actions and highlighting resources for victims. Stressing respect, she told them they may be held accountable for their words online, she said.
Things were improving. Social justice discussions held regularly in after-school clubs and at other events continued. And new this year: English teachers spent February through May leading class discussions about the turbulent months at the school.
But outside the school, calls were mounting for Teta’s removal.
A chaotic conclusion
The school had passed a major hurdle in February when the district’s equity office cleared it in all but one of the seven race allegations it initially investigated.
Chang declared that inquiry closed. But quietly, the probe continued. So did a federal investigation. In fact, district officials reviewed more than 100 racial or ethnic allegations, including those brought by parents. One of the cases involved a person with a close connection to Teta.
Under a glaring national spotlight, the school was forced to look within. A new student advisory group huddled in weekly meetings with administrators. A schoolwide “Teach-In” in May was sponsored by BLS BLACK.
That same month, three mandatory half-day workshops called “BLS Talks about Racism” were held.
At June commencement, the mayor told seniors they “brought to light difficult issues this year.’’
But the following week Teta and assistant headmaster Malcolm Flynn announced their resignations. Days after a rocky meeting with teachers, Walsh and Chang tapped a new leadership team to steer Latin over the next year.
A light had pierced the cloud over Boston Latin. But there could be long days ahead.