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BPS let Mission Hill School become so awful that it needs to close the school completely, no matter what parents think, BPS says

School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius today recommended that the School Committee vote to permanently shut, rather than try to fix, the Mission Hill K-8 School.

The School Committee is scheduled to vote on the proposal at a special meeting next week. At its regular meeting tonight, though, a number of Mission Hill parents urged the committee to reject the proposal and work with them and teachers to improve a school they said their kids love and at which they are getting a good education.

Cassellius's recommendation is based on a report by an outside lawyer about problems, in particular under Ayla Gavins, principal until 2019, that led to a culture of bullying and sexual harassment of some students by other students, one that did not stop even after two new co-principals were brought in - and then themselves suspended, BPS says. A separate report by an outside educational consulting firm found significant differences in the academic achievement of White and minority students.

A BPS analysis concludes:

Even with serious interventions during SY 2021-22, including the removal of school leaders and other educators, infusion of significant Central Office support, and extensive staff training, the school has failed to make the necessary improvements. Unfortunately, this has led to the conclusion that children will continue to be harmed if the school remains open.

BPS continues:

By closing the school, the district will:

  • Immediately remove students from a culture that has negatively impacted many students’ growth
  • Increase the likelihood that students will be safe from verbal and physical student-on-student incidents or bullying.
  • Increase the likelihood that students with disabilities will have their educational needs met.
  • Increase the likelihood that all students will have access to standards-aligned, grade-level instruction.

In e-mail to parents today, Cassellius wrote:

Nothing about this decision is easy. We understand the disruption families will face as they choose a new school that best matches their childrens’ needs. We also know that the Mission Hill community might be divided on the appropriate next steps that should be taken. However, as the investigative findings make clear, the culture of the school, which allowed these events to continue over time, is beyond repair. Furthermore, the lack of accountability shown by school leadership leaves no hope that simple changes in leadership or governance structure would address the pervasive, underlying issues that contributed to the unsafe conditions at the school.

At a School Committee meeting tonight, though, several Mission Hill parents said the school''s unique decentralized approach can be fixed to provide the quality education they said their children are getting.

Toyoko Orimoto of Jamaica Plain, who has two children at the school, said Cassellius's proposal is "punishing the many students who remain" and "completely undermining the faith many of us have put into Boston public schools."

Parents noted that the administrators who lied on reports and ignored complaints about harassment are no longer at the school.

Under the proposal, the school's current 200 students will be offered seats in nearby non-failing BPS schools. BPS says it has identified some 400 seats in schools within 1 1/2 miles of the Mission Hill School.

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Comments

I.e. is there something like disbarring where Gavins can lose any accreditation to act as a school administrator in the future? This sucks for everyone. What a tragic, preventable disaster.

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Voting closed 46

Gavins is partly to blame, BPS has oversight of the school. Academic Superintendents were not doing their job. Where were the visitations from Gavins's supervisors? Where were the surprise visitations? What happened to the change of command? Where was the parent's recourse? Why didn't the parent take their complaints to the next level? For too long, the building did not have the proper interventions in place. Clearly, the check and balance system is off.

I think families and communities forget. Superintendents, Principals, teachers, and ALL school personnel work for students and families, not the other way around.

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Voting closed 21

They didn’t forget! Their complaints were dismissed and brushed under the carpet by the revolving door of superintendents and mayors and a pretty useless school committee.

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Voting closed 4

She's co-chair of the board of directors at Circus Up! and working at The Farm School.

Perfect place for someone described in the following way:

“cultivated and tolerated a culture of pervasive indifference to sexual misconduct, bullying and bias-based conduct and toward rules, regulations and policies, and created a climate of hostility and intimidation toward parents and staff who questioned or disagreed with that culture.”

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Voting closed 5

It is a disaster… with a ripple effect on all those families still left at the school. My understanding is that the group of families that sued the district (to make Ayla accountable), wanted her to be banned from working ANYWHERE in BPS. But sadly in the settlement she is only banned from any positions at MHS.. kind of a moot point now that they are closing the school. She can STILL teach in BPS…!!!!

And those kids who bullied and sexually assaulted their peers can also be ANYWHERE in BPS!!!

She wasn’t personally sued because she qualified for immunity.. something I don’t understand completely. It’s awful, just awful but what worries me more is how many other schools are going through something similar? Alya got to run that school into a complete state of chaos for 12 years!

Where is the system of check and balances to make sure the principals and people in charge are not mentally ill which Ayla clearly is… how else can you explain the horrific things she did??

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Voting closed 7

This headline doesn't reflect the report. The school leader actively tried to prohibit BPS from knowing what was really happening at the school. That was part of the school leader's model - do the opposite of what the district said and don't report anything.

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Voting closed 51

If so, BPS had oversight and administrative control over the school, and failed on their obligations of providing a safe and productive learning environment for the students.

The "why" and "how" may be a result of the leadership within the school, but that does not change the "what" of the story.

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Voting closed 27

Yes, BPS missed opportunities to intervene. And pilot schools are going to lose some of the autonomy that MHS used to create, maintain and hide its culture of abuse.

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Voting closed 18

BPS let the idea of pilot schools get away from it. A pilot school, like a pilot experiment or prject, is supposed to be a small scale on which a new idea gets tried out, with greater latitude for errors. If the pilot is successful, then it gets replicated elsewhere, and on a larger scale.

Instead, pilot schools in BPS turned into "special rules" schools, run in perpetuity as exceptions.

Given how useless some principals are in BPS, even when they're supposedly being watched closely, and given how many kids come to school with profound problems, it's not a surprise that things went far south at a pilot school eventually.

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Voting closed 36

The BPS report on school incidents reads to me that Mission's Principle was just fine with little girls and gender questioning youths being felt up and kicked around. A horrifying glimpse of what sadism can be enacted under the cloak of " excellence". Good for Cassellius for sticking it to the self serving administration asking her to step down.
Any parent who wants their child to attend this school is condoning a culture that perpetrated vicarious trauma on their own child, poor kids.

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Voting closed 38

I’m positive there’s a better solution. I truly feel horrible for the students/families the incidents happened to but MHS was honestly the best school I ever attended.They were ahead of the curve in many areas as far as education and structure (very Montessori-like). I am sad that some kids didn’t get to experience the safeness and family-feel myself and soooo many other children did (with and without Ayla as the principal). Obviously new procedures need to be put in place but I truly feel that if this school closes, BPS loses a gem in its pebble-filled collection.

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Voting closed 31

I am sad that some kids didn’t get to experience the safeness and family-feel myself and soooo many other children did — they were literally sexually abused and bullied, and the administrators went out of their way to enable the abuse by breaking rules designed to protect those kids. Where is your conscience! Do you not see that that could’ve been you, and Ayla would’ve ignored you when you reported being abused and bullied, let your abusers stay and done nothing to stop it? How many children is too many children being abused and bullied and a school stops being a “gem?”

Jesus Christ, burn this place to the ground.

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Voting closed 46

I cant speak to what the school has become because I’m a double digit alum, but as I stated before, based on my years there this is something that I would have never saw coming. I witnessed firsthand how Ayla and the other staff involved solved conflicts with empathy and grace. I am sad it happened to those kids, no one deserves that. I am not dismissing what happened. I thought cutting off the bad fingers saves the arm, right? So if everyone involved is no longer there and the school is one of the best during a time where parents have no faith in BPS education, why close it? It’s more likely for it to happen at another school than at this one again. Duality means I can feel bad for those bullied kids as well as feel sad to see a school that was crucial to my development go.

Praying for you as well, emac.

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Voting closed 24

With respect, this is exactly how toxic cultures take root and thrive. Your experience was good because others shouldered the burden of victimization. You have no idea what other children experienced while you were there so that you could have a positive experience. Schools can't just sweep events like this under the rug and move on. Just like roads can hang on to the "memory" of an accident, making traffic back up long after the crash is cleared, institutions like schools can hold on to the normalization of abuse long after primary perpetrators are gone. Teachers, families, support staff, and administrative support all form the structures that allowed the abuse to happen, even if they do this unwittingly. The law firm who conducted the review understands this, to their credit. There is no other solution than to close the school and change policies and oversight so that this never happens again.

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Voting closed 33

Asking for a friend, of course.

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Voting closed 13

Do you have a good faith interest in improving the education and safety of children in Boston or are you just here to say “lol BPS?” Please share.

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Voting closed 17

This is a situation where BPS is doing the exact right thing and people are complaining that it's "too drastic". You want institutional change? Take drastic action and hold people accountable.

So, given that you agree that BPS needs change, I'm sure you have a thoughtful policy proposal at the tip of your fingers. Should they close the school? What do you think should be done to change BPS?

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Voting closed 2

The problem as horrible as it is is not in just the one school!!! BPS is a mess!!! No one cares about the schools or the kids, not the revolving door of superintendents or the mayors. The current mayor really does not care about the schools or anything that isn’t “green”

This is happening at nearly ALL schools in BPS. Parents drop off their broken kids on the doorsteps of schools and expect the teachers to deal with it… it’s just daycare to them. How is this ok? Why can’t these kids get help sooner.. so that that the teachers tasked with being social workers on top of teaching 25-30 kids can actually teach??

All schools in BPS Have to have a family liaison (a person who sends newsletters) and a restorative justice person (useless position thAt will not help).. why not invest in extra social workers or therapists.. that actually helps kids!!! Not some stupid made up position that most kids are likely to resist!!

Invest in GOOD math teachers. We had a fantastic one at our school who was let go because of budget shortfalls but it’s ok to employ a person to write newsletters and do restorative justice….??? Come on!

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Voting closed 6

Edit: go read the next comment. I have nothing more to say.

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Voting closed 15

Read it. Here’s Ayla:

Gavins and other school staff knew that A.J. assaulted two other students before he assaulted B.G. during the 2014-2015 school year. In addition, they knew that that A.J. assaulted B.G. (one of the girls) and five other students during the 2014-2015 school year before he assaulted A.R. (the other girl) during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years. ... Moreover, Gavins and other school staff were aware that B.G. and A.R. were specifically vulnerable to continued abuse by A.J. because they had witnessed or otherwise learned that A.J. assaulted B.G. and A.R. ... By discouraging and delaying the filing of 51A Reports in connection with A.J.'s sexual assaults and retaliating against a teacher who filed such a Report, officials chose to ignore the danger to B.G. and A.R. and aggravated their vulnerability. In short, school officials' decision not to report known sexual assaults to DCF in accordance with Massachusetts law despite knowing that elementary school-aged children (who are particularly vulnerable due to their age) had been repeatedly assaulted is sufficiently conscience-shocking to survive a motion to dismiss.

More detail about the assaults:

In their revised complaint, the parents charged that A.J. had already established a pattern of sexually assaulting other students when, in October, 2014, he "digitally penetrated" one of the daughters - when both students were just 4 and in a K1 class, according to a document filed in the case by the city.

Complaints to the school by them and other parents, they charge, fell on deaf ears and A.J. kept right on going after other students, the suit alleged.

Over the course of that school year, he sexually attacked her and at least five other students, again, the parents claim, with no action by the school or principal Ayla Gavins, except to continue to tell staffers not to tell DCF anything and to ignore complaints from parents.

The following school year, A.J., still a student at Mission Hill and now 5, allegedly groped the other couple's daughter and tried to kiss her and made her expose her genitals, threatening her with violence if she refused.

The attacks continued through a third school year, in 2017, again without action by the school, the parents claimed, adding that at one point, A.J. was seated in class right next to one of their daughters.

Empathy and grace, you say?

https://www.universalhub.com/2021/boston-will-pay-650000-parents-two-you...

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Voting closed 25

Ayla should be criminally charged for allowing sexual abuse to continue. She may have solved some conflicts with empathy and grace, but she failed to protect the victims in this case.

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I'm sure the hippies out in Athol value having a diversity hire on the team but she obviously should not be allowed near children in a professional setting.

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Voting closed 26

Totally agree!!!

But the problem is she qualified for immunity .. something about working for the city, like the police?

So they couldn’t prosecute her… it’s awful and what she deserves

It’s like Cardinal Law getting a fancy position at the Vatican after knowing and letting all those kids get hurt. It is the SAME thing!!!

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Voting closed 4

It’s some small relief to know that not everyone was harmed at this school.
Otherwise, I do not know enough about the whole issue to have an informed opinion.

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Voting closed 15

This school’s administration is a disgrace. The full report is beyond damning. Closing it is obvious. But what do we do to hold the admin and BPS accountable so this doesn’t happen again?

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Voting closed 13

It’s happening at nearly all BPS schools. Part of the problem is receiving kids with significant special needs, kids who have trauma, poverty and not having adequate resources to deal with it all. AND not catching them before they enter school. A kid showing up on the doorsteps of a school who is prone to sexual assault and violence is a no win for all parties involved… if it’s THAT bad, that kid needs a therapeutic placement out of district, where the district fits the bill.. but of course that doesn’t happen because it all comes down to money. Yet the district pays out so much money in lawsuits. To me the placement would be a drop in the bucket compared to closing a school?

Mayor Wu doesn’t care about the schools because they where not part of what she ran on. She doesn’t care…it’s all lip service. The buck keeps getting passed. The schools are not even a blip on her radar.

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Voting closed 5

Having worked in one, therapeutic placements are hundreds of thousands of dollars. The school district is probably gambling that they can downplay/control the kid with a small risk of a lawsuit vs the guaranteed cost of the placement.

The whole thing is a cluster.

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Voting closed 5

This is a personnel problem, and maybe I'm being naive, but why can't they fix the personnel problem and keep the school open? It seems like they're throwing the baby out with the bath water. I'm not trivializing what happened there, but the system seems very broken if the solution is to close schools when there's a problem.

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Voting closed 27

The headline and commenters blaming BPS here need to at least acknowledge that as a pilot school, Mission Hill leaders had a baked-in ability to shield themselves from BPS oversight and scrutiny. Pilot schools in Boston tend to inflate their reputations via incessant celebrations of their "culture." It's clear that Cassellius sees that as part of the problem here.

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Voting closed 32

Disagree. Most of the pilot schools are good functioning schools and produce good outcomes. They follow BPS guidelines etc. The situation with Ayla was Similar to Cardinal Law and the priests!

She was crazy with a capital C!

I think BPS needs to have a better system of checks and balances for ALL schools on how principals are doing their jobs. Ayla is completely mental… period. Nobody caught it. A significant amount of kids got hurt because you had someone with extreme mental illness at the helm for 12 years!!!

People came forward and complained none of it helped! Why did it take at least 6 years for anything to happen?

And she can’t be in jail because of some weird rule that she had immunity from being sued or prosecuted.. where is the justice in that?

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Voting closed 2

What is worse than then the coverup of child abuse and sexual assault by school administrators.

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Voting closed 19

Ah, yet again, the political and educational leadership of Boston fiddles while BPS burns. World Class.

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Voting closed 15

I hope someone figures out why.
Excuses is all we hear.

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Voting closed 42

As an aside, why is this the "Mission Hill" School when it's rather far from Mission Hill? Wouldn't "Jamaica Plain School" be a better name? When schools have names that are neighborhood-specific, how can they just be in completely different neighborhoods?

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Voting closed 9

It was on Mission Hill, then moved, but they kept the name.

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Voting closed 22

My heart bleeds for these girls. I was repeatedly assaulted in school, a long time ago, and it still affects me to this day. How Gavins let this happen is beyond me.

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Voting closed 23

Feel the need to protect a problematic student who was sexually abusing other children over the victims themselves?

AJ was also likely being abused by an adult, based on their actions. That is not normal for a 4 year old.

Ayla Gavins has been hired by a school in another district and the world goes ‘round.

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Voting closed 24

AJ was also likely being abused by an adult, based on their actions. That is not normal for a 4 year old.

Exactly this, and that there was an effort by the principal to prevent 51A reports to DCF and retaliation against a teacher who filed them it meant that AJs likely victimization was allowed to continue just as much as the abuse he was inflicting on classmates. There's a reason that school staff are mandatory reporters, this is more than a failure it's a betrayal to all those kids involved.

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Voting closed 21

I really want to know the story behind who that kid is and what the situation was. I wonder if Gavins has some link to the person obviously assaulting A.J. and wanted to protect that person. The girls were just an unfortunate casualty - if you report they were assaulted, any first year social work student would make the obvious jump to A.J's age and behavior and start looking 'up the chain', so to speak.

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Voting closed 2

You would think Superintendent John Antonucci was running the place.

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Voting closed 8