Information scarce on sexual misconduct at Boston schools

BPS Office of Equity’s annual report contains no data

IT’S HARD TO TELL whether the type of sexual behavior that resulted in a recent $650,000 legal settlement at a Boston public school is an aberration or just the tip of the iceberg because the school system releases so little data on sexual misconduct.

The annual reports of the Boston Public Schools’ Office of Equity – the office charged with investigating complaints of sexual misconduct – contain no mention of any investigations or any analysis of reports received by the department.

In response to a series of public records and information requests, however, the office did release a breakdown of 894 boundary violations investigated by officials at the unit or individual schools from 2018 through 2020.

Boston Public Schools identifies a wide variety of boundary violations, including unwanted physical contact, inappropriate comments such as sexual jokes and references, inappropriate “sexting,” and unacceptable sexual gesturing.

There are four boundary violation scenarios that are investigated by BPS: employee-on-student, employee-on-employee, student-on-student, and student-on-employee. The first two categories are investigated directly by the BPS Equity Office, the second two by officials at the individual schools.

BPS officials say that each incident is thoroughly investigated, and most are resolved by officials at the school level. “We trust our schools,” said Rebecca Shuster, the assistant superintendent of equity.

But the recent $650,000 legal settlement illustrates a major breakdown in that system of trust. In that case, the school principal at the Mission Hill K-8 Pilot School failed to pass on information regarding alleged sexual misbehavior to officials at the Office of Equity or to anybody else for that matter in the central office.

In the lawsuit that led to the settlement, five sets of parents of daughters alleged that they brought their concerns to the principal, Ayla Gavins, who took no action and failed to bring in officials from the central office.  

A similar scenario played out at the Mission Hill School when the bullying of a gender-nonconforming student went on for five years and was never reported to the central office.

BPS officials say that 95 percent of the 894 boundary violation investigations involved relatively minor student-on-student or student-on-employee incidents. BPS administrators say they lack the ability to provide any overview of the cases or breakdown by type, although they say they can track individual cases.

“We aren’t able to spit out the numbers on student-on-student [and student-on-employee] incidents because of the nature of our tracking system,” said Shuster, the assistant superintendent. “We would be able to generate [individual] reports, but we don’t have a button we can press, and ping, out comes a count of this many were minor, this many were egregious.”

Part of the problem is that when the investigations are carried out at the school level, administrators there often fail to submit their final reports to the Equity Office, according to BPS officials. 

Shuster said she is proud of the efforts of the Equity Office. “We routinely get calls from all over the country because of how extensive and comprehensive our efforts are,” she said. BPS’ sexual misconduct prevention programs include staff training on internal policies, age-appropriate classroom instruction on personal space and consent, and a program called “24/7 Respect,” adds a spokeswoman. 

But Billie-Jo Grant, a researcher and trainer from California Polytechnic State University who specializes in employee sexual misconduct prevention in public schools, sees the paucity of data on boundary violations as a “major limitation” at BPS.

“The recordkeeping system they’re using is not thorough and their investigations are incomplete,” Grant said. “They don’t have a way to quantify the types of cases that are occurring and how often they’re occurring.”  Without this information, she said, “district officials are not getting the full picture of the school environment and thus cannot adequately allocate resources and support.”

Limited information was available for the employee-on-student and employee-on-employee categories, since those were investigated directly by the Office of Equity. BPS officials said that findings against employees were made in 13 of the 28 employee-on-student incidents that occurred and and 11 of the 15 employee-on-employee incidents that took place. The offending acts in both categories were similar and included inappropriate physical contact, comments, gestures, and text messages.

Since 2018, five BPS teachers — three males and two females — have surrendered their licenses while being investigated for sexual misconduct by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The acts perpetrated, however, were redacted from the records. An attorney for the state education department, Joshua Varon, declined to say how many, if any, investigations of sexual misconduct by BPS teachers are currently pending.

When alleged sexual misconduct involving children does occur, BPS, as a “mandated reporter,” must file what are known as 51A reports with the state Department of Children and Families (DCF). But BPS officials say that they do not have the capability to determine how many reports they file with DCF each year, and DCF officials say they, in turn, do not have the capability to determine how many reports they receive from BPS.

The same holds true for sexual misconduct cases that BPS turns over to the Boston Police Department for criminal investigation — neither BPS nor BPD can quantify it.

As part of the 894 cases, BPS has entered into 10 settlement agreements with employees who committed sexual misconduct against either students or fellow workers. Five of the settlements involved school police officers, three involved paraprofessionals, and two involved cafeteria workers.

BPS officials initially refused to provide copies of the settlement agreements, which were marked “confidential.” But after a month-long appeal to the supervisor of public records in the secretary of state’s office, the officials provided the agreements.

One school police officer, a patrolman, resigned as a result of “inappropriate communication with a student via social media.” Another school police officer, a sergeant who used “excessive force” and made “inappropriate physical contact with a student,” was suspended for two days without pay. Three of the school police officers were required to undergo remedial training. Two of the paraprofessionals resigned but received severance pay of $5,195 and $11.729.

All 10 settlements were negotiated by various employee unions, including the Boston Teachers Union, all of which declined to comment for this story.  

Some school systems around the country provide more information on sexual misconduct in their schools. For example, the 2020 annual report on sexual misconduct issued by the Office of the Inspector General to the Chicago Board of Education presents accounts of about 75 specific cases of sexual misconduct running for about 40 pages, including a chart that catalogs cases broken down into 10 detailed categories. Forty-seven Chicago school employees were terminated as a result of the investigations.  

Amber Nesbitt, a Chicago deputy inspector general who heads up the Sexual Allegations Unit, said an analysis of sexual misconduct data revealed a disproportionate number of complaints against school security guards. In response to public disclosure of the data, the school district overhauled its hiring and vetting procedures for security guards and developed a customized training program for them.

Nesbitt said it’s important to post the information her office collects online. “It provides much needed transparency and accountability to our citizens,” she said. “Findings of sexual misconduct must never be swept under the rug.”

The special commissioner of investigation for the New York City School District also provides detailed information to the public regarding her investigations of sexual misconduct.

Both the New York and Chicago offices operate independently of the school system, unlike the BPS Equity Office, which reports directly to the superintendent.

Successful oversight can only come when there’s autonomy from the body being investigated,” said Daniel Schlachet, the first deputy commissioner in the New York special commissioner’s office.