Metro

US attorney thinks Boston Latin reforms will help racial climate

Boston Latin School.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Boston Latin School.

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, who two days ago released a critical report on the racial climate at Boston Latin School, said Wednesday that she is confident a series of reforms underway at the elite school will address concerns of harassment and discrimination for all students.

Speaking publicly for the first time about her sweeping investigation, Ortiz said she believed “the school’s cooperation and genuine commitment to address these issues involving race, even if felt by a small group, will be critically important in making the school exactly what it should be for all students.” Ortiz was joined in the brief interview with the Globe by Jennifer A. Serafyn, chief of the office’s Civil Rights Unit, which conducted the investigation.

“The federal investigation into this matter validated a number of original concerns that were very serious, that caused us to take a look at this to begin with,” Ortiz said, “and we hope that by affirming some of the issues and problems that were being faced by a group of students, that those problems will be addressed.”

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Community groups and students who had first publicly voiced concerns about an unhealthy racial climate at the school welcomed Ortiz’s report, which found at least one violation of the Civil Rights Act. In that case, a black female student was called a racial slur by a non-black male student, who also threatened to lynch her with an electrical cord. Ortiz’s investigation found that the school mishandled the matter and failed to investigate; the female student was visibly upset talking about it a year and a half later, and Ortiz said the victim felt uncomfortable at the school, a violation of her civil rights.

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“It wasn’t just the manner in which that incident occurred, but more appropriately the manner in which it was responded to by the school. It was ineffective and it wasn’t prompt enough, so much that this woman . . . was still visibly upset,” Ortiz said.

The investigation also cited two incidents that did not rise to the level of a civil rights violation but were still troubling: In one case in November 2014, students presented an administrator with racially charged tweets that other students had published following protests in Ferguson, Mo., but the students said their concerns were ignored. In another incident in March 2015, the investigation found, administrators mishandled a complaint by a student and the student’s parent about racially charged text messages among a group of students, and bullying of the student who complained about the messages.

Ortiz’s report, which criticized the school’s mishandling of the incidents, mandated a number of reforms under an agreement with the school, including training for staff and the hiring of a diversity officer. The agreement will remain in place for three years.

Boston Latin, considered the oldest public school in the United States, is an 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.

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Boston Public Schools and Boston Latin officials said reforms are already underway, noting that past investigations, including one by the School Department’s Office of Equity, raised the same issues. Ortiz agreed that the school had already made progress, and noted the cooperation of the School Department and the city administration in her investigation.

“I made it clear from the very beginning the school was very committed to [solving] whatever problems existed and figuring out the best way to address those problems, and have been addressing those problems,” she said.

In a statement Monday, former headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta said the report did not accurately describe the “reality of life at the school I know and love.” Teta, who resigned in June after a School Department investigation faulted her mishandling of the text message complaint, questioned the motives of outside groups that had pushed for the civil rights investigation. Her lawyer also questioned the truthfulness and motives of witnesses.

Ortiz did not address Teta’s statement directly, but acknowledged criticism of the investigation and concerns among school supporters that the complaints of discrimination do not accurately reflect the school’s climate.

“I certainly respect their position, they’re looking at it from their perspective, but if you can’t see the problem and respect the seriousness of the problem, how can you address it?” Ortiz said. “I think that the school as a whole is intent on addressing what is a serious problem, and it wasn’t just a problem identified by our office. . . . I think the key reason we got involved in this investigation is because a number of advocates and community members were concerned about it and brought it to our attention.”

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Ortiz added, “What I don’t want to lose sight of is that Boston Latin School is a tremendously great school, it has a tremendous reputation, the students that go through it receive a tremendous education, and it still stands as a premier school. That being said, it doesn’t mean it didn’t have some serious issues that need to be addressed, issues associated with race.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.