United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz announced on March 2nd, 2016, that the Civil Rights Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts is launching an independent investigation of alleged civil rights violations at Boston Latin School (BLS). Eight civil rights organizations and community members submitted a joint written complaint to the U.S. Attorney’s Office on February 26th, raising concerns about racial harassment and discrimination at BLS.
The Boston Globe reported that some of the matters raised in the five-page complaint by parents of current and former BLS students included “disparate discipline and suspension of black students compared with their similarly situated non-black counterparts.” There was also an alleged incident wherein a teacher “greeted a black student by using the ‘n-word’” that school officials reportedly did not investigate.
Complaints of widespread racism came to light during Martin Luther King Day in January when two students, Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster–Cazeau, posted a YouTube video and launched the hashtag #BlackAtBLS on social media.
Other alleged incidents of racism happened long before. The Globe reported on the story of Milton Britton Jr., who came home from work one evening to find his teenage daughter crying hysterically. The girl eventually told her parents a secret she’d been keeping for months: A classmate at Boston Latin had said to her, “I should lynch you with this,” while holding an electric cord in his hand. He also allegedly called her a crude racial epithet.
This incident is directly related to the current climate at the prestigious school. A school department investigation into the racial climate at BLS acknowledged mishandling the girl’s case. Of the seven race-related incidents investigated, it was the only case in which the school failed to respond adequately, according to the report.
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The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion in public schools and colleges and universities, hence the need and legal basis for a federal investigation. The Boston Globe quoted Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, as saying, “We really need an independent third-party like the US attorney to make sure that what happened did violate or didn’t violate [the students’ rights].” He went on to say that Ortiz’s decision to investigate “speaks to how disturbing the incidents have been.”
In spite of these occurrences and the announcement of the attorney general’s federal investigation, many parents at the school still back the administration, including the headmaster, while also supporting the investigation. An informal group of hundreds of parents of students present and past have come together to support BLS headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta. In a statement, they said, “We are confident in Attorney Ortiz’s ability to go ‘where the facts lead.’ We are anxious for the process to be brought to a conclusion in a timely manner so we in the community can move forward.”
The headmaster herself acknowledged some missteps in a letter sent home to students and staff: “While I am optimistic that the dialogues begun over the past few weeks will lead to a more respectful and welcoming racial climate at our school, I deeply regret that we did not begin such conversations earlier.”
So what could be the outcome of this investigation? As with any other investigation, Ortiz will have to find evidence to substantiate any criminal or civil violations. If criminal wrongdoing is discovered, charges could be filed. If civil rights violations are found valid, the U.S. Attorney General’s office could force BLS to change its standards and rules. The school may be forced to retrain staff and comply with regular Justice Department reviews, and if the school disagrees with any proposed remedies, prosecutors could seek a court order. This is what happened when the U.S. Attorney General sued the city of Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown by police in 2014 led to protests about widespread discriminatory practices from the police. The next investigation led to findings that required the city to make substantive changes in the way its police department and city court operates.
Both the mayor of Boston and the school superintendent have agreed to fully cooperate with the investigation:
We continue to work on launching an independent investigation that will look deeper into any allegations, the culture at Boston Latin School and make recommendations on how the district should move forward. It is always our top priority that all schools provide respectful and accepting learning environments and we welcome working in collaboration to reach a positive outcome for the kids.
Will these efforts be enough to allay the concerns of parents with children of color attending the school?—Alexis Buchanan