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After racism uproar, MFA bans 2 members and pledges to change protocols

(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

After an uproar over racism allegations, the Museum of Fine Arts said Friday it has banned two members who made offensive comments to visiting students from a Dorchester middle school last week, and pledged to change its protocols for museum staff and guards.

The announcement came two days after top MFA administrators issued a public apology to seventh-grade students from Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy who said they were subjected to racist remarks and treatment from museum staff and at least two patrons during a May 16 field trip.

On Friday, the MFA released its findings on the incidents that occurred that day, announcing that it had served “no-trespass, cease-and-desist letters to two visitors who used offensive and inappropriate language when they came into contact with the students.” Museum officials said they had video footage and a witness who confirmed the two patrons made the remarks, and that they were able to identify the two as MFA members.

In one incident, a teacher from the school reported a student overheard a patron likening the student to a stripper as she danced to music, and in the second case, a patron complained that “there’s [expletive] black kids in the way.”

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The Davis Academy students also said they had been singled out for scrutiny by museum security staff as they progressed through exhibits, while other groups of white students were left alone. Additionally, it was alleged a museum worker at one point told students, “No food, no drink, no watermelon.” There is a long history in this country of watermelon being used as a racist trope.

More than 90 percent of Davis Academy’s 216 students are African-American or Latino, while 95 percent of the school’s staff are people of color.

In an interview, MFA Director Matthew Teitelbaum said the museum was not able to determine whether a staffer used the word “watermelon.” There was no audio evidence of the staffer’s remarks to students, Teitelbaum said, and the employee who greeted the group recalled relaying a standard disclosure, that “no food, no drink, and no water bottles” were allowed in the galleries, according to the museum’s statement Friday.

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“There is no way to definitely confirm or deny what was said or heard in the galleries,” the museum said. “Regardless, the MFA is committed to providing additional training for all frontline staff on how to engage with incoming school groups about policies and guidelines.”

Davis Academy principal Arturo J. Forrest called the banning of the two patrons “a step in the right direction,” but said he was not surprised with the museum’s conclusion over the “watermelon” remark.

“It doesn’t discount the fact that our students feel as though that was said. I don’t get caught up so much in the words, because that’s usually how it goes, and I explained that to our students,” Forrest said. “When it comes down to words, it’s always a way out of it.”

Forrest said the Davis community was still reeling from what had happened and had not fully processed the MFA’s findings. But he said the Davis students had handled the situation with grace and added he was proud of how they represented themselves to MFA officials.

“I think the problem started long before our kids ever went to the MFA,” Forrest added. “It’s a much bigger problem.”

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The allegations prompted an internal investigation during which the museum re-created the group’s entire visit through security footage and spoke with dozens of people who interacted with the students. They also triggered widespread condemnation by civic and public officials, including Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and City Council President Andrea Campbell, who is African-American.

The museum said it would change protocols and procedures for frontline staff and guards, and also plans to articulate “our expectations for visitor, staff, and volunteer behavior” and enhance ongoing training for all staff and volunteers.

The MFA noted that on May 16, the museum had 13 security guards patrolling the spaces the 26 Davis Academy students visited during their trip. During that time, museum guards went on and off break and occasionally overlapped as they moved from one area or another, the MFA said Friday.

“Based on surveillance footage, it is understandable that, because of this movement, the students felt followed,” said the museum. “This was not our intention. It is unacceptable that they felt racially profiled, targeted, and harassed.”

Teitelbaum said no museum staff were disciplined in the wake of the controversy. But the MFA said it will take measure to “adapt security procedures” to make sure that all visitors feel welcome.

He has requested to meet with Davis Academy students next week.

“What’s deeply important to me is that a museum has to stand for a set of values, therefore we have a responsibility for finding ways to bring those values alive in the museum space and in everything that we do,” he said in a phone interview.

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Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald. Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.