“I have a problem with things being hidden, swept under the rug”
Boston Public Schools has disciplined 123 students for alleged sexual assault in the past nine years, according to the most recent Massachusetts Student Discipline Report. Those numbers have raised community concerns about how sexual misconduct is handled by the district.
In order to address worries, members of the Boston City Council’s Committee on Education fielded a litany of concerns about these cases at a hearing in June—from allegations not being taken seriously, to one victim having to see their alleged assailant in class.
The hearing followed the closure of Mission Hill K-8 School in Jamaica Plain in April, after an investigation found “pervasive indifference” by administration regarding the handling of sexual assault and bullying. A BPS parent who testified at the hearing that her child was assaulted by another student on campus said she was not informed by the school, but rather when her child told her three weeks later. The parent, who wished to remain anonymous and declined to be interviewed afterward, said the administration spoke with her child’s alleged assailant and his parents about the incident and he apologized, but the student faced no consequences. She added that her child remained in the same class as the alleged perpetrator, who was not moved after the reported incident. The parent said there is “rampant” violence in the district.
“I have a problem with things being hidden, swept under the rug, trying to save reputation more than saving these children,” she said during the meeting.
Disciplinary data about students in the district who allegedly committed sexual assault from 2012 to 2021 is readily available to the public. But most of that information fails to note how students were disciplined, leaving questions about how the district handles these serious allegations.
Out of the 123 students allegedly disciplined since 2012, only three received an out-of-school suspension as a more serious consequence, all in 2015 to 2016. No alleged student perpetrators were expelled, moved to an alternate setting, received a school-based arrest, or were referred to law enforcement.
At the highest point of the data, 33 students were disciplined for alleged sexual assault in the 2015 to 2016 school year. That number plummeted the following year, with only one student disciplined. It is unclear if BPS made any changes that could have affected the number of students disciplined in 2016 to 2017, or if the data contains discrepancies due to underreporting. The district’s chief of communications declined our request to speak with the office that handles these matters.
City Councilor Julia Mejia, who chairs the Committee on Education, said that the data may not accurately reflect the true number of incidents of sexual misconduct in the district. However, the data is broken down by demographics, including sex, English-language learners, economically-disadvanteged students, students with disabilities, high-needs students, and race. Most of the students disciplined are identified as high needs, economically-disadvantaged male students.
In response to questions for this article, BPS Chief Communications Officer Gabrielle Farrell said alleged sexual assaults are investigated by the Boston Police Department, while the district addresses and investigates allegations of sexual misconduct, defined in a superintendent’s memo last year as “any sexually inappropriate comments and/or behaviors of any kind.” Farrell said most of the investigations “are related to student-to-student incidents that are not serious in nature,” and the students are referred to Succeed Boston @ the Counseling and Intervention Center, a district counseling program. The center “is a short-term counseling and intervention program that addresses a range of Code of Conduct violations by students,” and claims to have a mission rooted in “decision-making, social emotional learning and the impact of trauma.”
“The Boston Public Schools has no higher priority than providing a safe, affirming learning environment for our students to thrive,” Farrell wrote in an email. “The district’s Office of Equity takes any report of sexual misconduct very seriously.”
Succeed Boston @ the Counseling and Intervention Center did not respond to requests for comment. Disciplinary procedures for allegations of sexual assault at Succeed Boston are not publicly available.
Despite the district’s efforts, community members who testified at the hearing said the mishandling of sexual misconduct cases is common.
“Honestly, from what I understand, being on the ground and being very active in (the) school community, this is not unusual,” one parent said.
In her turn speaking, Councilor Mejia said her daughter had been hit on the butt by another male student. She said she was not called by the school about the incident.
“The administration knows that I’m not happy with it,” she said.
People including students and parents called for an investigation into every allegation, and for the district to create spaces for students to feel comfortable to report and talk about sexual misconduct.
“The person who ends up getting disappointed is the person who’s the victim,” Mejia said. In the case of her family, Mejia said her daughter preferred not to take the incident further in the reporting process. “They’re the ones who are asked to leave their school community.”
At the June hearing, Rebecca Shuster, the BPS assistant superintendent of equity, said the process of reporting an incident includes: faculty making an immediate safety assessment; filing a report to the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families; investigating the incident; and, depending on its seriousness, bringing it to the Office of Equity before pursuing additional steps or disciplinary action.
Questioned about victims attending class with their alleged assailants, Shuster said moving alleged perpetrators to a different environment is difficult due to their legal rights. “Involuntary transfer is not an acceptable response,” she said.
Expulsion is not listed as a disciplinary action for students accused of sexual assault unless they have been convicted of a felony, according to the district’s code of conduct.
Shuster did not respond to a request to elaborate on her comments for this article.
Looking to push the issue further, Councilor Mejia said that after listening to public testimony, the district, in collaboration with City Council, began making plans to host a series of community discussions to address solutions and concerns about the handling sexual misconduct in BPS this school year. The talks will include parents, students, and staff members.
“It’s really driven by the people who are living these realities,” Mejia said.