Report alleges bullying at Mission Hill school

Sexual misbehavior settlement involving same school announced last week

THE MISSION HILL K-8 Pilot School in Jamaica Plain, where alleged sexual misbehavior by a male kindergartener led to a $650,000 legal settlement last week, is now facing criticism for failing to deter student bullying of a gender-nonconforming student.

Both matters occurred during the leadership of Ayla Gavins, who was principal of the school from 2004 until she resigned in 2019. She is being criticized for her handling of both issues and her failure to bring them to the attention of officials up the chain of command.

Gavins was rehired as a part-time teacher at the Mission Hill K-8 Pilot School for the 2020-2021 school year by co-leaders Geralyn McLaughlin and Jenerra Williams, who were placed on paid administrative in August.

The sexual misbehavior was disclosed in a lawsuit filed in 2017 by the parents of five female students. The parents alleged that Gavins “failed to take sufficient steps to protect [their daughters] from sexual and physical assaults committed by another student” in 2015 and 2016.

The sexual misbehavior, which included digital penetration, happened when all of the students were ages 4 and 5, according to court documents unearthed by Universal Hub.

Although the alleged bullying of the gender-nonconforming student had been going on from 2014 to 2019, it only came to the attention of the Boston Public Schools central office in February, when a parent contacted Superintendent Brenda Cassellius. Cassellius then hired local attorney Joseph Coffey to conduct an investigation.

In his “confidential” report, a redacted copy of which was obtained by CommonWealth, Coffey said Gavins chose to ignore and disregard multiple bullying reports from the parents of the gender-nonconforming student over many years.

“The principal’s indifference to the reports of bullying and her failure to address evident patterns of bullying from 2014-2019 was part of a deliberate policy of denial which enabled some of the students’ recurring aggressive behaviors and bullying to continue,” Coffey said in the report.

The “freestyle culture” Gavins created at the Mission Hill School, Coffee’s report said, led to “sidestepping” the disciplining of students for bullying and created a “hostile setting” that left bullied students “vulnerable and unprotected” from the first grade to the sixth grade.

Coffey further alleges in his report that Gavins was “indifferent” to 52 incidents of “assaultive repetitive bullying” toward the gender-nonconforming student during the student’s five years at the Mission Hill School.

The alleged violent acts included the student being pinned up against a bathroom wall and choked by a fellow student, stabbed in the face with a pencil, struck on the head, punched in the nose, body checked, kicked, taunted, hair pulled, and verbally abused. One student allegedly even threatened to bring a gun to school and kill the gender-nonconforming student, according to the report.

Coffey’s report said the many incidents constitute “pervasive, reoccurring, and emotionally injurious bullying” in violation of Massachusetts law as well as the Boston Public Schools written policy on bullying. He also pointed out that other parents reported instances of bullying of their children during the same period.

Coffey interviewed 20 people as part of his investigation, including Gavins, according to his report.

“Ms. Gavins’ response to many questions was ‘I don’t remember,’” Coffey said in his report. “She contended that the behavior of the students toward [the gender-nonconforming student] was not ‘bullying’ but “retaliation’ by the other students in response to [the gender-nonconforming student’s] actions. She contended that the ‘other kids were fed up.’” Coffey’s report later suggested other children at the school were fed up because of the gender-nonconforming student’s failure to read social cues.

Coffey said Gavins chose not to seek help from outside the school. “Gavins’ view, which is mirrored in the Mission School’s agenda, in part, is to solve all school issues or problems internally and thereby avoid or minimize interactions with the ‘central office,’” Coffey’s report said.

Coffey summarizes Gavins’s alleged actions and inactions as “conduct unbecoming a BPS principal” and disruptive of the “opportunity for a basic safe educational environment and learning space and an opportunity to grow in a secure and safe setting.”

Gavins declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story, other than to say, “There’s so many unanswered questions that I have. I don’t think I’m in a position to think about it.”

A spokesman for the Boston Public Schools declined to say whether the school system was aware that Gavins had been rehired as a part-time teacher for the 2020-2021 school year.

“While the Mission Hill K-8 School is one of the Boston Public Schools, it is also a pilot school, which allows for autonomy and flexibility around a variety of operational policies, including but not limited to, hiring practices,” Xavier Andrews said in a prepared statement.

Andrews said Cassellius “has directed additional training, support, and resources for members of the Mission Hill K-8 School community to ensure a safe, culturally affirming, and welcoming learning environment for all students.”

The Mission Hill K-8 Pilot School has about 234 students who range in age from 3 to 14. The school uses a two-grade classroom system, which joins a lower grade with an upper grade in the same classroom with the same teacher.