US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz announced the findings of a civil rights investigation into Boston Latin School on Monday, but they were shockingly unrevealing. Ortiz found that there was a climate of racial discrimination and harassment at the school, and that BLS staff failed to adequately handle student complaints.
But we already knew that, primarily from Boston Public Schools’ own investigation into the incidents. What’s new is that, in one instance, Ortiz found the school in violation of the federal Civil Rights Act. As a result, the district agreed to a three-year period of oversight under the Department of Justice. During that time, BPS will be monitored to make sure the school carries out mandatory training for students, faculty, and staff on racial harassment policies; designs a restorative justice system; hires a diversity officer; and conducts an annual survey of the school’s racial climate. In fact, some of those measures had already been implemented at the school, such as the hiring of Albert Holland, in March, as special assistant to the superintendent, to help with racial tensions. He’s now been appointed as the diversity officer at Boston Latin.
Hopefully, such remedies will result in a better school environment. But Ortiz ignored the elephant in the room. The racial harassment that resulted in the civil rights violation probably wouldn’t have happened if the school were more diverse in the first place. “We know the harm racial isolation causes,” says Matt Cregor, of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. “When you’re made to be the only person in the room of a certain color of skin or national origin, that’s a tremendous burden.”
Indeed, the racial demographics at Boston Latin School diverge sharply from the district’s. Black and Latino students constitute 74 percent of the city’s school population yet account for only 20 percent of Boston Latin’s student body. To be fair, the district is boosting efforts to diversify the pool of candidates seeking admission to the city’s three exam schools, including Boston Latin. But in looking for long-term strategies to tackle racial tensions at the school — approaches that go beyond a survey or a training session here and there — the admissions policy must be on the table.
School officials had been already doing that. But they got off on the wrong foot when it was reported, in early July, that there was an under-the-radar advisory group examining entry requirements at Boston Latin and the city’s two other exam schools. Alumni and parents understandably cried foul, concerned about stealth efforts to change policy. It’s incumbent on Boston Public Schools to reexamine a process that shortchanges the majority of the city’s student body. But such conversations need to be conducted publicly.
Students are currently admitted to BLS based just on grade averages and test scores. A quota system once reserved 35 percent of seats for black and Latino students, but that system ended after a 1995 lawsuit in which a white student claimed reverse discrimination. Since then, minority representation has lagged.
Boston Latin is an exclusive school by nature. But application criteria have changed over time, and could change again; maintaining academic excellence is perfectly compatible with the goal of reducing racial isolation.
The use of test scores and grades as admission criteria carries an inherent disadvantage. It favors the families who can afford to pay hundreds of dollars for a test preparation course. The old quota system may have been an unacceptably blunt tool to diversify the student body, but there are legal race-conscious approaches that the district could consider, such as assigning more weight to applications from kids living in certain zip codes.
This summer’s US Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action signals that higher-education institutions have some discretion factoring race in the admissions process. That message should ring loud and clear in elementary and secondary school systems as well. To address the root of tensions Ortiz and others have identified, the district needs to look hard at the way students are admitted to BLS, the district’s “crown jewel.”