Parents of two former students at the Mission Hill School, which the School Committee ordered shut as unfixable earlier this year, are suing Boston, the school's onetime principal and two teachers for the unconscionable treatment they say their kids received from not just students but the principal and her staff.
In their civil-rights suit, filed in US District Court, the parents of "Joseph Doe" and "Casey Roe" say the only thing that ended their childrens' torment was getting them into suburban schools. That torment, the parents say, included in Joseph's case getting repeatedly slammed in the head, especially after he suffered a cracked skull and traumatic brain injury in the school gym, and in Casey's case included getting punched, pushed down stairs and having boys repeatedly exposing themselves to her - all compounded by school staff either ignoring or sometimes even egging on attacks.
Casey suffered physical or mental trauma at the hands of other students on dozens of occasions during her time at MHS, which was often not reported to Ms. Roe, and for which she did not receive medical attention.
As a result of actions, inactions and failures at the quasi-independent MHS, Casey was unable to access appropriate educational services, and has been left with deficiencies in her education that have caused her to be humiliated and embarrassed by comments from people in the community.
The suit alleges that one of the staffers told Doe's parents it was hard to help him because he was "a white kid with social capital" and that principal Ayla Gavins did nothing to stop tormenters because the school was under her control, not BPSes and she was tired of Black kids getting punished so much. But that didn't help Casey, of African-American and Puerto Rican descent, who was repeatedly bullied, by both girls and boys, including one whose behavior led to a suit by other parents that ended with BPS agreeing to pay them $650,000 to end the case.
During Joseph's first-grade year, 2014-2015, he suffered a series of bullying incidents at the hands of other MHS students, including being pushed to the ground, hit on the back of the head, taunted to fight by a group of students on the MHS playground, and stabbed on the side of his face with a pencil.
During Joseph’s second-grade year, 2015-2016, he suffered a series of bullying incidents at the hands of other MHS students, including being hit, punched and kicked, having balls thrown at him, being hit with a chair thrown by another student, and having his hair pulled.
Then, after his skull fracture and stay in Children's Hospital following an incident in the Mission Hill gym that the school never explained or fully investigated, the school did nothing to help him with his recovery and ignored what other students were doing to him, the suit alleges:
In the six weeks following his [traumatic brain injury], Joseph received hits to his head inflicted by other MHS students on six separate occasions, thereby subjecting him to further injury and long-term consequences. ...
On June 21, 2016, Ms. Gavins acknowledged that Joseph had been the victim of “a string of incidents,” but justified the attacks, defended the attackers, and blamed Joseph, saying that he was “struggling to self-regulate and failing to read social cues.”
Ms. Gavins’ actions in protecting and defending Joseph’s attackers encouraged, enabled and emboldened them, and resulted in continued and escalating attacks throughout his remaining time at MHS.
Nothing changed, the parents charge - except that his teacher, Jenerra Williams, hit him in the head with a cell phone and then organized other students to mock and taunt him:
During Joseph’s fifth-grade year, 2018-2019, he suffered continued and escalating bullying, including being pushed against a bathroom wall and choked, threatened by a student that he would “f you up,” and threatened by another student that he would bring a gun to school to kill Joseph. The bullying incidents also included other students pushing, slapping, punching, kicking, and taunting Joseph, as well as gender-based teasing about his shoes and clothes and pulling off the hat or bandanna that he wanted to wear to cover his hair. He was also followed after school by students who threatened him, and hit with a chair by another student.
Finally, in 2019, his parents got him transferred to another BPS pilot school and then, in 2020, he "was approved for placement in a private out-of-district school."
Casey, who suffered from "dyslexia, food allergies, sensory deficits, vision problems, mood disorder, ADHD, and high impulsivity with difficulty in regulating her emotions and behavior," and who had an "individualized educational program," initially went to Mission Hill because her mother - herself a longtime BPS employee - knew it had a full-time school nurse, whom she hoped would "attend to Casey’s multiple medical needs."
Instead, even as a kindergartner, she was subject to abuse by other students, two of whom called her a "fucking bitch," the complaint says. Then there was the boy who was the subject of the earlier suit, the one BPS settled for $650,000, called A in the suit:
A. repeatedly harassed Casey on the school grounds while they were outside, including asking to see her underwear, asking her to kiss him, trying to kiss her, physically holding her down, and removing her shoes so she couldn't run away from him.
Ms. Roe reported A.'s conduct to the MHS staff. The only response Ms. Roe ever saw was that A. was given a "time out" to sit on a bench.
Ms. Roe reported A.'s conduct, including his efforts to kiss Casey, to Ms. Gavins, who excused his conduct by stating that "A. has problems."
During the spring of 2015, boys started exposing themselves regularly in the presence of Casey and other female students, in the school halls and on various places on the playground.
That fall, problems escalated, the suit alleges: Boys would pull her pants down, one classmate punched her in the stomach so hard she vomited, another urinated in her cubby and one pushed her down some stairs. Instead of doing anything, the suit alleges, Gavins said playground incidents were not her problem and forced Casey to join a "friendship club" with her two attackers - who, after the meeting, attacked her again.
Ms. Roe found the environment at MHS to be very different from other BPS facilities, in its disorganization, lack of supervision for students, physical aggression among students, and verbal abuse inflicted by students on each other.
The complaint continues that in 2016, Roe moved to a suburban town.
On Casey’s first day in her new school, she reported to her mother that "No one hit me today."
The two teachers, Williams and Nakia Keizer, filed their answers to the lawsuit this week. Both deny the allegations but also say that, in any case, they are protected from the suit by "qualified immunity," a legal doctrine that protects government workers in cases involving constitutional questions if they can show there have been no successful suits involving similar cases.
But in any case, Williams argues:
People or entities other than this defendant caused or contributed to the damages plaintiff(s) claim to have suffered. Therefore if any award made in favor of the plaintiff in this case, it must be reduced by an amount equal to the percentage of the fault of others in causing or contributing to the damages as alleged in
Keizer, who also denied any wrongdoing, said the two families waited too long to file the suit, and:
Plaintiffs’ injuries and/or damages, if any, were proximately caused by their own negligent or intentional conduct and/or by the negligent or intentional conduct of others, and not by the conduct of the Defendant.
The city and Gavins have yet to file their answers; they have until Nov. 23 to do so under a schedule set by Judge Allison Burroughs.