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Civil rights violated at Boston Latin School, feds say

6 mo. investigation finds racial discrimination, poor administrative response

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Federal attorney Carmen Ortiz concluded her six-month investigation into allegations of racial harassment at Boston Latin School on Monday, concluding that there was a climate of racial discrimination at the school and that administrators had mishandled responses, in one case so egregiously it constituted a violation of federal civil rights law.

The investigation began in February in response to a complaint filed by local civil rights groups and involved review of thousands of pages of documents as well as interviews with more than 200 people, including parents, faculty, students, alumni, administrators and BPS central office employees.

In a letter sent to Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang, Ortiz called out a 2014 incident in which a student threatened a black female student with lynching with an electrical cord and referred to her with a racial slur. The event and the administration’s insufficient handling of it represented a Title IV violation, Ortiz said. Administrators failed to provide quick and effective response and the event had lingering effect on the student who was “still visibly upset when talking about it to investigators a year and a half later,” the letter stated.

Ortiz highlighted other incidents as also concerning. These included what she said was insufficient response for administrators to students’ delivery of a binder of allegedly racist tweets — something that sparked the #BlackatBLS campaign. Ortiz faulted administrators for their slow response and failure to communicate about the incident or redress actions planned with faculty and the reporting students, contributing to a perception that complaints were not taken seriously.

The letter also said that BPS had not provided enough guidance to the school on how to handle reports of racial discrimination and harassment. The federal investigation followed on one conducted by BPS’s Office of Equity.

Ortiz said that some of BLS’s initiatives to address the situation had been positive steps, including creating a hotline for reporting grievances, but were implemented in either a too limited or slow manner.

BPS and the U.S. attorney’s office for Massachusetts declared an agreement on implementing improvements, which will go into effect this year and cover the ensuing two school years. Under this, BPS officials must create a strategy to address and prevent discrimination and harassment including measures such as mandatory training for students, faculty and staff on policies and procedures around such issues; creation of a restorative justice system; and creation of schoolwide racial climate surveys which will be reported to the attorney’s office.

“We and the leadership of Boston Latin School are fully committed to implementing the recommendations in the voluntary resolution agreement reached with the United States Attorney’s Office to ensure all reports of racial bias are fully, promptly and effectively addressed at Boston Latin and every Boston public school,” Superintendent Chang said in a statement.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, the Boston branch of the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Massachusetts Advocates for Children — several of the organizations that had called for the federal investigation — issued a statement in which they said the findings should spur attention to such issues in all BPS schools. They also said that redressing the situation at BLS will require reviewing exam school admission policies to ensure that it does not prevent greater diversity among the student body.

“Boston cannot fully address the harms of racial isolation until it has established an exam school admissions policy that enables BLS to better reflect the diversity of our city,” the statement said.