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BPS needs real accountability, not state intervention

Ruby Reyes

Several weeks of heart- wrenching reports about the Mission Hill School were followed by a bag of bullets found outside of a school, then a bullet found in a different school bathroom in what seemed like a movie scene. What has been most evident over the past few weeks is the Boston Public Schools’ central office leadership has failed to create a comprehensive crisis response plan and it continues to be needed more than ever. There is a desperate need for trauma-informed infrastructure that prioritizes the needs of students, families and school communities.

From the start of the pandemic, school communities have been begging for additional mental health supports. Now almost three years later, and with Superintendent Brenda Cassellius counting her final days in Boston, BPS leadership has failed to develop administrative systems. When a crisis happens in BPS, the response is individual and dependent on a staff person to care enough to respond. What should happen instead is the BPS central office should have preventive and response systems already in place. If there is a crisis, then the systems go into effect and individuals who care are not scrambling to figure things out each time a new issue arises.

With restorative justice practices — another term BPS leadership parades without an implementation plan — when a community is harmed, the priority should be to heal the community. The first step is to address the issue, not with silence as what happened at Mission Hill, but with school communities coming together to address what happened, process feelings and develop a path towards healing.

Rather than using punitive responses, the goal is for school communities to heal, learn and grow.

By now, central office staff should have developed comprehensive protocols and wraparound supports for students, parents, families and educators, including ongoing and extensive communication with families in the appropriate school languages, providing onsite and virtual mental health supports that are not based on requests from individuals, but available to all. More importantly, central office should have implemented restorative justice healing circles in September for students. Instead, BPS leadership prioritized hiring a law firm to do an investigation.

With the current central office systems, families and sometimes even School Committee members hear about issues through the media. What central office did with the Mission Hill community was launched an investigation to be able to wash their hands of fault, then responded with ineffective supports. For example, the before- and after-school programs were immediately stopped, and the new principal never attended weekly parent coffee meetings.

With the growing list of safety incidents and school closures, and each issue mismanaged worse than the one before, closing schools does not address the issue or heal the harm, it causes more harm. Dr. Cassellius and the BPS central office consistently talk about “holding themselves accountable,” but they don’t do this when it comes to developing systemic measures.

BPS is in a critical place of transition. Students, families and educators deserve quality leadership, including a central office and a School Committee that prioritize and value students. Even with these issues, state intervention would undermine what little decision-making families, students and educators currently have.

The Mission Hill School has been a prime example of how school communities are disregarded and kept intentionally in the dark. In a time of crisis, when people needed to come together, BPS leadership went completely silent and internal rather than practicing more of the supposed transparency.

The Mission Hill School failed the families who experienced abuse. By focusing on blaming others, central office leadership is failing all school communities and creating a standard for no accountability rather than developing systems that ensure accountability. However, replacing central office leadership with DESE bureaucrats would lead to worse outcomes for everyone.

Ruby Reyes is the executive director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance.