Federal probe finds discrimination at Boston Latin
Shortly after students left classes Monday, US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz announced that a sweeping civil rights investigation at Boston Latin School found a climate of racial discrimination and harass-ment and that staff failed to properly address student complaints, leading to at least one violation of the federal Civil Rights Act.
The civil rights probe, commissioned in March, confirmed reports of discrimination first publicly made by students in January, including an incident in which a black female student was called a racial slur by a male student who also threatened to lynch her with an electrical cord. Ortiz found that the school’s mishandling of the incident was a direct violation of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination and harassment at public schools.
The letter to Superintendent Tommy Chang summarizing the review and a 13-page agreement criticized the school for mishandling at least two other complaints of racial incidents and ordered officials to better monitor the climate at the school. Some of those steps are already underway, according to school officials.
“All students should feel welcome and safe at BLS regardless of their racial background,” Ortiz said in announcing the findings.
Investigators who interviewed the student who was threatened with lynching said in the report that “she was still visibly upset when talking about it” a year and a half after the incident and that it “negatively affected her overall experience at BLS.”
The student’s mother, Lori Britton, a Boston Latin alumnus, said, “it was unfortunate it had to rise to this level in the first place,” but she was hopeful that the US attorney’s report and recommendations would make the school a better place.
“We’re relieved the investigation has come to an end and will ensure that Boston Latin becomes a healthier, stronger school and comfortable and safe for all students,” Britton said.
The other incidents cited in the investigation did not constitute violations but were still troubling, including a series of racially charged tweets by students in November 2014, after the riots in Ferguson, Mo. Students filled a binder with the tweets and brought them to administrators but were ignored.
The report also found that former headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta and the School Department mishandled a parent’s report about racially insensitive text messages that were sent among a group of students in March 2015.
The parent, whose daughter was bullied for speaking out against the texts, reported the incident in a voicemail to Teta. But the headmaster, who had a personal connection to one of the bullying students, had another person — who was not an employee but who also had a connection to the bullying student — contact the parent.
The concerned parent ultimately reported cyberbullying to the School Department’s Safe Space and Bullying Prevention Hotline, which then sent the complaint back to Teta. The report found that the incident was not properly investigated after that point.
“The headmaster failed to appreciate that this method of handling the matter, along with her continued [albeit limited] involvement in it, created both an actual conflict of interest and the appearance of one,” the report said.
The School Department’s Office of Equity, which conducted its own investigation into the school, informed BLS officials in June that they had mishandled the case. Teta resigned four days later, though she denied it was in response to that investigation’s findings.
Teta released a statement Monday saying she was “deeply disappointed” by the US attorney’s findings, and her lawyer said the report was based on tainted information and contradictory statements.
“The picture painted in the US attorney’s report could not be further from the reality of life at the school I know and love,” Teta said.
In a statement, Chang said both the district and Latin School leadership are “fully committed to implementing the recommendations’’ in the agreement. Chang, in a letter to Latin students and parents, wrote that the aim is “to ensure all reports of racial bias are fully, promptly and effectively addressed at Boston Latin and every Boston public school.”
Boston Latin, considered the oldest public school in the United States, is an elite exam school with a student body that is about 47 percent white, about 12 percent Latino, about 9 percent black, and about 30 percent Asian. The agreement, which formally ends the investigation, came on the same day that a new report on state standardized tests slightly downgraded the school and a school in Dorchester.
Elma Edwards, a former Latin School student, said she felt vindicated by the US attorney’s report.
“I feel relief that things are finally getting resolved, and people know that the students were not lying, that it’s not just petty stuff, and that these were serious things that were actually happening,’’ said Edwards, who was vice president of the student group Black Leaders Aspiring for Change and Knowledge and is now a student at Babson College. The student group publicized concerns over discrimination and harassment in a video posted online in January.
Under the agreement with the US attorney’s office, Latin School officials must develop a strategy to address and prevent discrimination and harassment. The requirements include mandatory annual training for students, faculty, and staff covering policies and procedures related to racial harassment; the creation of a restorative justice system, which generally focuses on reconciliation with victims and the community; the hiring of a diversity or non-discrimination officer to monitor complaints of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation; and an annual school-wide survey of the racial climate, which will be reported to the US attorney’s office.
The agreement will be in effect for three full school years, beginning with this school year.
School officials said they have already undertaken efforts to address the points made in Ortiz’s report, noting that past school-commissioned investigations had similar findings.
“We have agreed to move this forward, we have agreed to make all of the recommendations made by [school investigators] and the US attorney’s office,” said Michael Contompasis, interim headmaster at Boston Latin. “Since day one we have been doing that.”
He also said he wanted to focus the staff’s attention now on the 2,400-students at the school. “They deserve to focus on teaching and learning,” he said.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he was not particularly surprised by the US attorney’s findings and commended Ortiz for the inquiry and the recommendations.
“I’m glad the decision has been made now, so we can move forward in the school,’’ Walsh told reporters outside Faneuil Hall Monday. “There were some facts in the report … that we have to work on.”
Walsh said in weighing the recommendations, the city will “look across all schools” to ensure there is fairness district-wide.
Community groups, including the local chapters of the NAACP and the ACLU, had called on Ortiz in February to commission an independent investigation into the racial climate at the school because they believed school officials had not taken the concerns of discrimination seriously.
Ortiz said that her office received full cooperation from the school department. More than 200 people including administrators, faculty, parents, students, and alumni were interviewed, and investigators reviewed thousands of pages of school documents.
Those who called for the investigation said Monday they were pleased by the findings and recommendations.
“This is encouraging for many parents, students, teachers, and advocates who know this was more than a case about slights and complaints about tweets,” said Michael Curry, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. “The US attorney’s report underscores there has been a problem at Boston Latin School.”
Matt Cregor, of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, said that the finding that the school violated the Civil Rights Act is significant. Cregor said federal courts set a “very high bar for what violates civil rights when it comes to racial harassment” and that investigators have to “find severe and pervasive harassment.”
What the [US Attorney’s Office] did first was validate students and parents’ concerns,” he said.