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The Boston School Committee voted Thursday evening to close the Mission Hill School in Jamaica Plain, in the wake of a damning report alleging the school overlooked reports of sexual abuse and bullying and neglected students with disabilities for years.
Five committee members voted in favor of closing the school — Jeri Robinson, Michael O’Neill, Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, Stephen Alkins, and Quoc Tran. Rafaela Polanco Garcia abstained and Lorena Lopera wasn’t at the meeting.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius commissioned an investigation into Mission Hill last year when five families won a $650,000 settlement from the district after alleging a student had repeatedly sexually assaulted their children on campus in a bathroom.
That investigation led to a 189-page report by law firm Hinckley Allen, which reviewed a 10-year period at the school and found even more allegations of abuse and neglect from administrators.
“How did abuse and dysfunction of this scale go unnoticed or unaddressed by the Central Office of Boston Public Schools?” Asked Will Austin of Roslindale, the CEO and founder of the Boston Schools Fund. Many had similar comments at Thursday’s meeting.
The report largely blamed a former principal labeled “MH Admin 3,″ who headed the school for 12 years.
On Thursday, several school parents and community members spoke out about the report, their experiences at the school, and the response of the administration.
Parent and BPS employee Asha LeRay cited “countless incidences of physical and attempted sexual abuse” during her daughter’s time at the school, which have had lasting effects on her.
“There were no repercussions along the way for the aggressors, and when I raised concerns, I heard little to no solution,” LeRay said.
“It has taken many years in therapy to work through trauma inflicted during my daughter’s time at Mission Hill,” she said. “To this day, we cannot drive near the street of the school or she will panic and cry. It will take a lifetime to heal these wounds inflicted by simply attending school.”
While a few of the parents who spoke supported closing the school, many supported keeping it open.
“You’re punishing the many students who love Mission Hill School and removing the important stability that the school has provided,” said parent Tokoyo Orimoto of Jamaica Plain. “I don’t want to downplay the extremely traumatic experience that many families have had… but by closing our school, you are creating more trauma on a larger scale. When I told my son about the potential closure, he immediately collapsed to the ground, sobbing.”
Several parents asked, if the school closed, that current students get priority placement at a new school. Many were concerned that they would be picking schools after the second round of registration.
“I urge you to work to minimize our trauma and ensure that Mission Hill School families get priority, being placed in the schools they would like to attend, and to maintain the incredible school community that we spent years building,” Orimoto said.
Several people were critical of the way the administration handled the investigation and the school’s possible closure.
“Dr. Cassellius gave her report and results as though they had caught the Mission Hill School in something rather than owning up to the fact that they knew about these issues several years ago,” said Ruby Reyes, executive director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance.
“It’s become apparent to me that this administration doesn’t care about our opinions because they never ask,” said parent Tim Klein.
“During this very trying year, they never asked us what support we needed when they dropped the bombshell on us in August and removed school leadership,” he said. “They didn’t ask us about our school experiences during the year, and if they did overwhelmingly, you’d find parents, despite trying times, had a very, very positive experience.”
Cassellius defended her actions, saying she exercised all of her authority through personnel actions to fix things at the school.
“Even with these interventions, the school still maintains one of the highest rates of not compliance with special education services within BPS,” she said. “The investigators found that students are still at an increased risk of bullying.”
“This school culture allowed for the egregious behavior to persevere and is fractured beyond repair,” she said. “We must take significant action to immediately ensure the safety and well-being of our students, and begin the healing process for the victims. To do otherwise would be to turn away from the grim findings of the report and the four reports prior to the detriment of students and families of Mission Hill.”
The committee members said they heard the concerns of the community, especially those of parents. However, they all cited the school’s systemic problems and culture as the reason that it needed to close.
“I hear that this school worked for many families. I hear that good people worked here. I hear that a closure at this time is more than just inconvenient it’s scary,” said Cardet-Hernandez.
“What happened here is truly egregious, and I don’t say that lightly,” he said. “I would not be doing my job if I did not vote yes.”
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