Boston Latin turmoil also moment of opportunity

City must reckon with race and equity issues throughout its schools

THE RESIGNATION OF Boston Latin School headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta last week punctuates a tragedy that we all must feel compelled to address. Teta appeared to have ignored pleas from black students who were suffering from racial harassment. That was a mistake.

Similarly, the subsequent resignation of Boston Latin assistant headmaster Malcolm Flynn last week presents yet another profound moment for reflection around race.

Flynn’s unfortunate accusation that “outsiders” fostered rising racial tensions at the school signifies racial denial, his inability to identify the markings of racism. His comments also indicate the misguided notion that BLS is a private school and therefore immune to public scrutiny and transparency.

The problem with Flynn’s perspective is that he fails to recognize that Boston Latin is a public school which is ever open to evaluation by the residents of the city.

As we in Boston strive for racial equity and academic excellence within our public schools, Teta’s resignation is indicative of the city’s woeful racial past. What shocks us so much is that racism was found operating within BLS, one of the city’s most venerable institutions — a public academic incubator of Boston’s ruling cultural, political and business elites.

While we recognize that headmaster Teta was a well-meaning leader at the school, it is our view that she allowed a racial climate to fester on that campus. And while Teta is highly regarded and competent in many ways, the environment at the school had grown racially toxic. A racially hostile milieu had settled on the school, emotionally impacting students and parents of all races.

As she states in her resignation letter, Teta concedes her decision was “one which I believe is in the best interest of our students, faculty, and our historic institution.”

Her letter further states that: “I believe that it is time for a new headmaster to lead the school and carry on the tradition of excellence.”

To our dismay, it was time for Teta to step down. Hopefully, she will contribute meaningfully someplace else within the Boston public school system.  We in Boston cannot afford to lose the tremendous passion, talent, and skills that headmaster Teta brings to the Boston system.

Yet, it is also important to note that the racial firestorm at BLS is not over. In the words of the American poet, Robert Frost, there are “miles to go before [we] sleep.”

Mayor Marty Walsh’s recently completed investigation points to problems that still linger at the school. We wish continued dialogue with Mayor Walsh as the second stage begins with corrective policy recommendations.

We also await the findings of a Justice Department investigation in the weeks or months to come. We appreciate the efforts of the department as it searches the public records and engages in interviews with students, staff, parents, and administrators at Boston Latin.

It is within this context that we ask Boston residents to do two things:

First, we ask that if parents or students connected to the Boston Public Schools have been harmed in any way by racially discriminatory treatment, please continue to report instances of perceived discrimination with the public schools. Parents should deem it their duty to contact the Department of Justice to report racism within BPS.  A thorough investigation of discrimination and inequity in our city schools is imperative.

Secondly, we ask the public to adopt the larger perspective that racial division within the Boston public schools extends beyond what transpired at the BLS. In this light, we need a comprehensive plan on addressing long-term structural inequity in our public schools from kindergarten through high school. This would require the public to look at existing policies aimed closing achievement gaps with an eye toward substantive revision and full deployment of the resources needed to level the playing field for poor and minority students.

We offer our insights to the current administration to make policy changes manifestly real and extensive. To this end, community organizations, education advocates and clergy will continue working behind closed doors for effective educational change.

Last week, a collective of community-based organizations and civil rights advocates made the following public statement about its commitments toward moving forward in the aftermath of the Boston Latin fiasco. The statement included the following points:

  1. We need to focus our efforts on an inclusive and thorough search process for the next leadership team at the Boston Latin School. This process should include the presence of community voices who will assist in identifying candidates who — in addition to maintaining the high academic standards — will affirmatively create an inclusive, affirming and anti-oppressive school environment.
  1. We also need to seriously look at the admission policy for Boston Latin. A letter sent to the Department of Justice this spring details constitutionally permissible options to include a broader and more diverse array of students, including by increasing the number of students of color admitted from BPS schools.
  1. We note that this present moment underscores the power, brilliance, and conviction of our young people. The two girls who ignited the current investigation regarding race at the Boston Latin School should be applauded and supported. There are no limits to what our young people can accomplish when they are encouraged to advocate for themselves. We need to continue to seek out, include, and affirm their voices and ideas.
  1. As community advocates, we contend that the racial-climate issues in Boston schools are not limited to Boston Latin School. The problem is districtwide.

There are many other issues in the district that require conscientious, continued advocacy to bring about change. We must continue to hold the school district leadership, specifically Superintendent Tommy Chang and Mayor Marty Walsh, accountable.

As unfortunate as recent events are, we see the setbacks and racial tension at Boston Latin as opportunities. From our perspective, we see clear pathways toward racial reckoning and healing in Boston. We see an opportunity to engage in sincere dialogue about race. We perceive a moment where we can bridge the social and class divisions that harm Bostonians and retard civic and community progress. We see a route toward constructing new policies that will impact a new generation of Bostonians young and old — black, white, Asians, Latinos, and others.

We can and must do better.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Darnell L. Williams is president and CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.  Kevin Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition and a senior fellow at the Center for Collaborative Leadership at the University of Massachusetts Boston.