The Great Divide
9 takeaways from Boston’s investigation into Mission Hill School; DA reviewing
SUFFOLK COUNTY, MA – A blistering investigation released this week revealed institutional failures that endangered children for years at Boston’s Mission Hill K-8 School, including overlooked reports of sexual abuse and bullying.
Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden on Thursday said his office is reviewing the report for “any crimes or incidents where mandatory reporting of sexual assault allegations did or did not occur.”
The report spurred Superintendent Brenda Cassellius to take the extraordinary step of recommending the school’s closure at the end of the academic year in June. The Boston School Committee will vote on the closure May 5.
“This is the stuff of nightmares,” Mayor Michelle Wu said Thursday on GBH News, pledging accountability in BPS.
Many parents have continued to defend the school.
Here are nine key takeaways from the report:
1. The school ‘systematically failed to protect students’ from sexual abuse, investigators found
The 189-page report by the law firm Hinckley Allen was sparked by complaints from parents that Mission Hill officials were ignoring their concerns about bullying, and separately, allegations by five families that one student had repeatedly sexually abused their children.
Investigators found the school “systematically failed to protect students” from sexual abuse by neglecting to document, investigate, or address allegations. The school’s lacking response to sexual abuse allegations went far beyond a case in which BPS in August agreed to pay a $650,000 settlement to five Mission Hill families who said their six young children were repeatedly sexually abused by the same student and administrators failed to adequately act.
Investigators blamed much of the school’s problems on a former administrator they labeled “MH Admin 3.” That administrator’s tenure coincided with Ayla Gavins, who served as principal for 12 years until summer 2019. She did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
The report details witnesses’ accounts of the principal’s response to the case of the student identified in court records as “A.J.,” who was accused in the families’ lawsuit of inappropriately touching fellow students and digitally penetrating one from 2014 to 2016. Gavins told parents who complained they should “pull their kids out” and that A.J. “had a right to be” there, the report says. A staffer recalled employees also voiced concerns that the student would be criminalized because he was Black, the report says.
The investigation found Mission Hill failed to complete official incident reports for at least 20 incidents of sexual misconduct allegations against A.J. and at least another 40 incidents of sexually inappropriate behaviors involving the school’s other students from 2013 to 2021.
The report says the failure to document sexual conduct was “an intentional by-product” of Gavins’s efforts to protect students of color.
2. A ‘persistent and well-documented bullying problem’
Investigators concluded Mission Hill had a “persistent and well-documented bullying problem” that ballooned due to the school’s “hands-off attitude” which “taught students to protect themselves by being abusive.”
Mission Hill School’s failure to implement standard disciplinary procedures led to a rise in bullying that was “largely unaddressed” by Gavins, according to the report. Investigators wrote that Gavins often paid “lip service” to handling serious bullying incidents.
Parents told investigators that Gavins avoided giving direct answers to safety questions and accused white parents of being racist or hostile when they advocated for their child’s safety.
3. Special education failures
The school also failed to properly provide special education services due to its philosophy that “each child is special and learns at their own pace,” investigators found, leading to students’ learning challenges going unaddressed.
The report found that students with disabilities — who make up one-third of the school — were likely failed in many ways, including the school’s practice of removing disruptive children for “what was effectively babysitting in another room.”
4. BPS was aware of Mission Hill’s problems for years
Over the six years before the investigation, BPS received multiple complaints from parents and investigated several internally. In 2015, BPS hired attorney Joseph Coffey to investigate allegations. Coffey found Gavins failed to provide specialized instruction by special education teachers, allowed improper restraints of children, created a culture of intimidation, and asked staff to “misrepresent” the school’s English as a Second Language services, the report says.
From 2014 to 2017, the report says, BPS received numerous complaints reporting sexual misconduct at the school. Coffey’s 2015 report cited concerns by a staff member who reported incidents involving A.J. in a staff meeting and recommended the student be evaluated, but Gavins allegedly refused due to concerns about Black boys being “over diagnosed” with disabilities.
In August, a parent told Cassellius that six employees in the superintendent’s office failed to act despite knowing that the school inadequately responded to reports of abuse, assaults, and bullying.
5. Three key e-mail accounts deleted during investigation
The report suggested some school employees put their self-interests before that of children, including by using a separate e-mail server and deleting at least three key employee e-mail accounts while the school was under investigation.
6. Cultural problems cited
Investigators said they found a “cult-like” climate at the academically struggling school, which espoused its philosophy as the unique “Mission Hill Way,” and an intolerance of dissent that ostracized employees and parents who voiced concerns.
7. Retaliation concerns
Parents said staffers who raised concerns were fired or pressured to leave. Several parents told investigators that the school fired an employee because the employee filed a “51A” report to the Department of Children and Families against A.J. in November 2014, which the parents felt disobeyed Gavins’s “view of keeping matters in-house,” the report says.
Although the employee reported leaving for other reasons, the employee also described being pushed out by Gavins and enduring a “pattern of hostility by [Gavins] and long-term teachers,” the report says.
8. Academic failings
Investigators concluded that Mission Hill failed to provide rigorous academic instruction in math, writing, literacy, and science.
The school focused on literacy for marginalized students, but often didn’t recognize that students from all backgrounds struggled, investigators wrote.
9. Gender-nonconforming students bullied
Investigators found the school fostered a culture that “allowed increased bias and discrimination” toward transgender and gender-nonconforming students. One parent told investigators the school “allowed a culture” where transgender students were beaten up in the bathroom. Investigators wrote they found evidence Gavins “showed an unwillingness” to address concerns raised about these students.
The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.