Boston Public Schools withholds 2d part of Mission Hill School investigation

Officials cite attorney-client privilege – only on phase 2

TWO INDEPENDENT reports commissioned by Boston Public Schools figured prominently in the decision to shut down the Mission Hill K-8 Pilot School in Jamaica Plain this summer, but officials are refusing to release a large amount of the information they gathered as part of those investigations.

The first report, produced by an attorney named Joseph Coffey, identified “pervasive, reoccurring, and emotionally injurious bullying” at the school in violation of Massachusetts law as well as the school system’s written policy on bullying.

That report prompted then-school superintendent Brenda Cassellius to commission another, more expansive investigation by the law firm Hinckley Allen, which decided to issue a report broken into two phases.

The first phase of the Hinckley Allen report declared the Mission Hill school a “failed” institution with an indifference to reports of bullying and sexual misconduct by students. Investigators said Mission Hill school officials “hid behind lofty goals of social justice and social-emotional growth for students while failing to deliver basic academic and safety services to its students.” 

The second phase of the Hinckley Allen report was expected to focus on whether funding for the school was adequate and examine why administrators failed to intervene earlier, but that report was never released to the public.

The Boston School Committee shut the school down permanently in May after the release of the phase one report, and school system officials never released the report’s second phase. In response to a public records request, the officials said the second phase of the report was not subject to the reach of the public records law because of attorney-client privilege.

The Hinkley Allen law firm was paid a total of $679,000 to conduct the two-phased investigation.

“BPS chose to release a redacted version of one report to update the School Committee and the BPS community as former superintendent Cassellius recommended closure of the Mission Hill K-8 Pilot School,” a spokeswoman for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said in a statement. “The remaining materials focus on specific personnel details and legal analysis and will remain confidential according to public records law.”

The public records law allows records holders to claim exemptions in order to withhold records, but invoking them is not mandatory.

Dr. Billie-Jo Grant, a researcher and trainer who specializes in sexual misconduct prevention in public schools, said she is troubled by Wu’s stance.

“This is not the time to be hiding behind attorney-client privilege and the public records law,” Grant said. “The second report — a document paid for with taxpayer dollars — needs to be made public so that other schools can fully learn from the egregious mistakes made by officials at the Mission Hill School.  Sexual misconduct and bullying thrive in secrecy.”

Jamie Gass, the director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank, expressed a similar sentiment.

“It should go without saying that our public schools are at their best when they operate transparently,” Gass said. “For this reason, it is imperative that Boston Public Schools make public all of the reports connected to the Mission Hill School scandal. This is certainly one of those times that just because government can keep something secret doesn’t mean it should.”