After a six-month investigation into the Boston Latin School, the U.S. Attorney’s Office concluded that the school violated the Civil Rights Act and failed to adequately address racist behavior and student complaints.
The federal probe confirmed reports of the school’s failure to address incidents, including a student who used a racial slur against a black classmate, and then threatened to lynch her with an electrical cord. The investigation also raised concerns about how Boston Latin responded to at least two other racially-charged incidents.
The probe was launched after the NAACP, the ACLU and a handful of other civil rights groups called on U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz to investigate allegations of racism at Boston Latin. The school’s headmaster, Lynne Mooney Teta, resigned four days after the School Department’s Office of Equity reported the school mishandled incidents of racism. Interim headmaster Michael Contompasis joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, along with Michael Curry, President of the NAACP Boston Branch, on Boston Public Radio Wednesday to discuss the future (and the past) of Boston Latin School.
Michael Curry, President of the NAACP Boston Branch
Michael Contompasis, former and now interim headmaster at Boston Latin School
Eagan: What do you think of the U.S. Attorney’s decision, do you think it was the right one, Mr. Contompasis?
CONTOMPASIS: Well, I think that they conducted a very thorough investigation, we cooperated with them, they pored over a whole bunch of reports and data that we had … do I agree with the findings? I guess one would suggest I pretty much have to, but I also would like to suggest that we are in the process, if you will, of developing or implementing what came out of the resolution agreement between the school district and the U.S. Attorney.
Braude: Just to be clear— that predated the findings from the U.S. Attorney by a day or so ago, correct?
CONTOMPASIS: That’s correct. The resolution consists of a series of actions that the U.S. Attorney would like us to implement, many of them are similar to what we had received from the report that was issued by the Office of Equity earlier in the summer.
Braude: When I said that Michael Contompasis was the former headmaster, his work preceded these incidents and is coming on board after these incidents—he was not in a position of authority during any of these acts that were being talked about.
Eagan: Early on, Mr. Contompasis, you were a supporter of the headmaster, Lynn Mooney Teta. She has said through her attorney that she was deeply disappointed by the U.S. Attorney’s findings, and that was not how she saw the school. Do you think that she needed to resign?
CONTOMPASIS: I think it’s a tough call for anybody to reach that decision, and I supported her decision, to be perfectly blunt. But I probably would have asked her to stay the course a bit more, because I happen to think that there’s been a great deal of good work done here, during her nine years of headmastering, as well as her predecessor, who was my headmaster, Cornelia Kelley. What they have done at the school, I think, is pretty impressive.
Braude: If I were in your position, and charged with trying to fix what ails Boston Latin, when the former headmaster (who was in charge when this behavior happened) says they don’t agree with the report, it seems like it makes you job much harder. Doesn’t it make it harder to fix things, if she’s in denial?
CONTOMPASIS: Whether it makes it harder or not, we’re committed to implementing the requirements that are both in the equity report and the resolution agreement. When you asked me whether I disagree with some of the things that are in the U.S. Attorney’s letter, I disagree that the impression is that this is not a safe school. There are issues that came up that need to be addressed. A lot of those issues were outlined both in the U.S. Attorney’s letter, as well as in the resolution, and we’re in the process of doing that.
When you asked me whether I disagree with some of the things that are in the U.S. Attorney's letter, I disagree that the impression is that this is not a safe school.
Braude: Michael Curry has joined us. Michael, welcome. What’s your reaction to the report?
CURRY: Encouraged. I think part of what we’ve seen from the very beginning of this process, dating back to when we engaged the Boston Public Schools back in early 2015 about the racial climate of the school, we called over to [former Boston Public School Superintendent John] McDonough’s office, we had a conversation. We talked about the tweets, and what we were hearing from students and parents, and at no point during that year, after our call, did I feel like it was taken seriously. As you hear from some folks, even today, it’s still not being taken seriously. When I hear people say that the climate in that school, that there’s no threats in that school, they need to come and sit with these parents. Not the parents from West Roxbury, who feel like all is good and everything is great. Come in here for the parents whose children felt like they were treated differently, who felt like their daughter was threatened, and it wasn’t taken seriously. The bottom line to this is: Post-Newtown, Virginia Tech, go down the list. When a student threatens another student’s life, for that not to be taken seriously should be a shame, not only for the administration of Boston Latin School, but for the district and for any other school that takes that stuff lightly.
Braude: You seem to be saying you believe it is still an unsafe school? Today, on September 28, is Boston Latin a safe school in your estimation?
CURRY: A protectionism exists, right? You see it in schools, when you think you have a great reputation, and you don’t want to tarnish that name. You can see it in police departments now, across the country. You can see it in our military, when we don’t want to smear our country’s name if we’re acting improperly in a military action. I bring that back to the school to say there’s such a protectionism around the name of the school that there’s a tendency by administrators, past and maybe even current, not to accept that this was a drop of the ball, that this was something that was mishandled, and that if they don’t acknowledge that it exists—then it can happen again. I don’t mean just acknowledging that it exists, but also to eliminate that culture that says that the threat of a young black child is a slight, and is not that serious, and that the report of the U.S. Attorney is exaggerated … it means you still don’t get it.
CONTOMPASIS: I would ask Mr. Curry to come and spend a day here. I would also suggest that when I say this is a safe school, I’m not hiding from the potential that kids may be insensitive to one another and may say inappropriate things.
CURRY: Or administrators.
CONTOMPASIS: What I’m suggesting is that this school is about teaching and learning. Part of that is teaching not only relationships, it’s teaching respect for one another. What those kids bring is a positive to the school. Are their warts? There are warts in every institution across this country, and we need to address them. What I’m suggesting is: We are making it clear to the families and to the faculty and staff and students in this school that everybody has an obligation, when they see something that’s out of the ordinary, that they have an obligation to report it. No one wants any student to feel unsafe or insecure, but the bottom line is: When something occurs over the weekend on social media, it is as critical to me, if that’s an insensitive remark of any kind, that we deal with it. I think what I’m saying is the U.S. Attorney and the Equity Office have made it clear that these are the steps that we think you need to take, and that includes upgrading the procedures and protocol to get rid of the perception that kids of one race are treated differently from the other. That’s a critical issue. It’s a critical complaint, and we take it seriously here.
Eagan: Jim mentioned the threats about the electrical cord lynching—there were other things that I found shocking, the kids that talked about the racial threats after Michael Brown was killed, and they brought binders full of these tweets to administrators. Those binders of tweets were ignored. Even more upsetting, after we all talked for months about Phoebe Prince, a young girl who committed suicide up in South Hadley several years ago after she was bullied nonstop, and we have this new bullying legislation, that there were other incidents of racially insensitive texts among kids, and the young woman who reported these texts was bullied, and complained to the school about it. That, to me, seemed very upsetting.
CURRY: I think this comes down to when your reputation for excellence trumps your responsibility. The reality is—and I wish Headmaster Contompasis one, knew that I have been to the school many times; that as a civil rights advocate to the NAACP, I don’t have to go to a company. When a lot of folks tell us there is discrimination, and we see that there is, I don’t need to visit your company to determine that there is an issue. In this case, what it clearly comes down to is that parents and students felt like they weren’t being responded to, that there was a cultural insensitivity, even by teachers at the school, and it was taken lightly, there wasn’t a timely response. Ultimately, I wish Headmaster Contompasis, former Headmaster Teta, had the humility to say, ‘You know what? We’re not black children, and we’re not black and brown parents, and we need to listen more than we talk. We need to understand that we don’t have an experience in this space, and if people feel slighted, if people feel disrespected or racially harassed, we need to come to that conversation with an intent to listen and not judge.’ That has not happened, from the beginning of this conversation.
CONTOMPASIS: I would disagree with Mr. Curry. First and foremost, when the comment is made that little or nothing was done, in terms of the binder, what I have at least investigated—and I agree, it’s after the fact—there were four students, Latin School students, that they were able to track in terms of improper statements that were in the binder. Four students at Latin Schools. Those four students were disciplined. The remaining number of tweets that occurred in the binder, I think it has been shown, were not caused by students of the school. So when we suggest that it was improperly handled, I would suggest that what was not done, and what could not be done, was to report on what was the sanctions imposed and who the students were. That’s what was not done. No one can condone any of the issues that are here, and I come back to, again, what has been suggested and directed in the resolution is an attempt to upgrade all of the protocols, procedures, and steps that need to be taken in order to address these issues moving forward. What I have tried to pose to every member of the family that makes up the Latin School, in every meeting I have gone to, is that we do not tolerate this type of behavior, we do not tolerate anyone being insensitive, and that deals with making people aware of what the district’s policies and procedures are, regarding bullying, regarding harassment, all of the things that were mentioned in the U.S. Attorney’s letter are part of the resolution, and we are implementing them. If I disagree with the U.S. Attorney’s findings, it’s because I disagree with the tenor of the letter. I don’t think that’s necessarily an opposition to their findings, but I do think that much has been made of the unresponsiveness of the school, and all I am suggesting is that in many of those instances, the school and the district responded. My concern is moving forward, that’s what I’ve been asked to do. And I need help in getting that community back on the same track. Constantly revisiting these issues doesn’t help.
I wish Headmaster Contompasis, former Headmaster Teta, had the humility to say, 'you know what? We're not black children, and we're not black and brown parents, and we need to listen more than we talk. We need to understand that we don't have an experience in this space, and if people feel slighted, if people feel disrespected or racially harassed, we need to come to that conversation with an intent to listen and not judge.' That has not happened, from the beginning of this conversation.
Braude: With all due respect, we wanted to bring the audience up to speed, and now we can spend the remaining time talking about the future. Michael Curry, before you came in, the interim headmaster described what they were already doing here, as per some agreements. I have to say, when Michael Contompasis was picked to the the interim headmaster, there was practically blanket approval that he was the right man to come back to Boston Latin to preside over this rehabilitation. Are they on the right track, both with him and the policies that they’re implementing?
CURRY: I think they’re in the right direction. His tone scares me, because, quite frankly, it’s misleading, what he said. It’s not just about the discipline that you administer as a result of what happened, it’s about the timeliness of your response. It’s about the communication between parents, the administration, faculty, to parents and students. There is absolutely no doubt, and I would love to sit down with Headmaster Contompasis and argue this point. There are parents and students who can show you that from the time that they brought complaints to the administration to the time that the administration responded was not timely, was not responsive, was not thorough. The threat case? They didn’t even notify the parents in that case that their daughter was threatened. That should be egregious to any of your listeners. For Headmaster [Contompasis] to diminish those things is concerning to me. You should understand the gravity of this, and then we can move forward, as you say. Lastly, on the ‘move forward’ piece, no matter what your issue is, whether you’ve been discriminated against, harassed sexually, whatever. The worst thing you could say to someone is, ‘Move on, let’s get over this.’ It means that you don’t get it—that it’s about a process of healing, it’s about a process of understanding, a consciousness of what happened, and for you to say to people who have been aggrieved, in some way, to ‘move on and let’s get past this’ really patronizing and insulting.
Eagan: I remember reading these initial stories, it used to be about 33 percent of the kids were black kids, now it’s about 9 percent, because of court decrees. But there was supposed to be a person running around ... there was this person whose job it was to work on availability, help with tests and getting into the school, and I’ve read they’re not really doing that anymore.
CONTOMPASIS: First and foremost, anytime that Mr. Curry wants to sit down, I’d be more than happy to do so. If indeed he’s worried about my tone, I’m sometimes worried about what I see sometimes in the daily press in terms of tone as well. Neither here nor there—when I say we’re trying to create a healing environment here, it means that I have listened to all of these parties, and I am more than happy to listen to any others. I have said on the record, as well as in here, that there were mistakes made, and the case that Mr. Curry mentioned is a classic example of where mistakes were made. No one is walking away from that, nor am I walking away from any of the issues that folks have. We’re trying to improve what came out of the U.S. Attorney’s and the Equity Office reports. The only way I can do that is to bring everybody together, and to really begin to focus on how we can improve. When I say ‘improve’ it’s recognizing that staff needs professional development. It’s recognizing that some of the protocols may need to re-examined. It’s recognizing that perception is also as real as what may well be actual. It’s getting everybody to understand that everybody here has a responsibility to report any incident that rises to the level of a student, any student, feeling uncomfortable in this building.
Braude: Is something being done about that outreach officer’s efforts? In communities of color?
Eagan: Who seemed not to be stepping up to the plate, in the way the person should have been.
CONTOMPASIS: What we are doing and what we’ve already put in place, with the district’s assistance, is increasing the awareness, if you will, in families in the city, to the fact that we have programs that are available in the summer and just prior to the time the examination is given. We’re increasing communication, the district is stepping up as well and trying to move the needle a bit in getting additional candidates who may not be aware of this to help as well.
Michael Curry is the President of the NAACP Boston Branch. Michael Contompasis is the former and now interim Headmaster at Boston Latin School. To hear their full debate on Boston Public Radio, click on the audio player above.