The Boston School Committee has voted to close Mission Hill K-8 School, acting on the recommendation of Superintendent Brenda Cassellius after an investigation found the school systematically failed to protect students from threats of sexual misconduct and abuse from other students for nearly a decade.
What we know about the investigation
The law firm Hinckley Allen, which Boston Public Schools commissioned for the investigation, conducted 65 interviews and collected over two million documents from October 2021 to March 2022. The investigation found sexual misconduct, bullying, poor academic outcomes, the failure to deliver special needs services and ensure equitable treatment of gender-nonconforming students, went largely unreported and frequently unresolved.
Between September 2013 and February 2021, investigators found written evidence of more than 100 incidents of alleged sexually inappropriate behavior by Mission Hill students. Fewer than half were recorded by the school as formal incidents.
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The report also identified a pattern of student-on-student violence, and, in some cases, threats or the brandishing of weapons. Numerous staff reported being physically assaulted, as well.
A culture of fear, retaliation and intimidation at the school for people who spoke out, according to the report.
"The perceived, and real, pressure among the small community to not speak out against Mission Hill School led several parents to describe the School as resembling a cult, particularly under MH Admin 3 leadership," it read. "[A parent] referred to Mission Hill School as 'The Fight Club – Mission Hill against the world.'"
"It's devastating to see the experience that families within our school district had that young people experienced horrific abuse and that there was a continued inappropriate lack of reporting of it. That most of all is what made me angry,” said Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.
The investigation also found the school failed to competently teach basic academic skills, such as reading, writing, and math to many students and consistently under-identified specialized needs and under-delivered special education services to students who required them.
Despite leadership changes in 2019, investigators found the culture at the school did not change. The findings led Superintendent Brenda Cassellius to recommend to the Boston School Committee that Mission Hill School permanently close at the end of this academic year.
Glory Acevedo said her children have experienced bullying and physical attacks at the school.
"Bullying yes, a lot of bullying and I've brought it up to teachers and nothing has been done. I Feel like they don’t really care about the students."
Haddy Bonilla was upset to learn the school could be closing.
"I don't even know what is going to happen because my child has an IEP [Individualized Education Program] and they have the best IEP program and the best teachers my child could have."
The 200 students currently assigned to Mission Hill would be assigned to different schools for the 2022-2023 school year.
"We need to make sure every single young person involved in this school and throughout our district has the supports they need. First and foremost, that's ensuring that the trauma that is being experienced now from eventual school closure and from the conversations with this report, now public, are there at the school," said Wu. "There is a help line being administered, supports for that community, and then the decisions on where our young people will enroll for next school year are in process, are being made all across the district. We are reserving some seats at schools in the area, and we are confident that there are available seats at high quality schools right in that area."
"The tragedy is that that needs to happen. If only eight years ago, these allegations, these sort of instances of abuse, were addressed appropriately, it wouldn't have come to this," said Daniel Heffernan.
He represented five families with six students who experienced assault in a lawsuit against the school in 2017. The case was settled in August of 2021. He said they tried to raise these concerns to the administration at Mission Hill School, and they were ignored. Staff were punished when they attempted to speak up, he added.
"I think it is sort of gratifying to the parents who are interested in sort of the reform there and improving things that a wider look was taken at what was going on there," he said. "And the hope is that Boston Public Schools looks at this or other public schools, look into what went on here and learn from it and prevent this from happening in the future and do a better job about responding to these kinds of situations and allegations."
The superintendent's recommendation to close Mission Hill School must be brought before the school committee for a vote. If approved, the school would close at the end of the school year.
See the full report from Hinckley Allen below:
Reaction from students and staff
Students and staff arrived at Mission Hill School last week unsure of its future.
“I don’t think closing the school is a solution, probably the teachers and the people who work here, probably sit them down and figure out what’s really going on," said Glory Acevedo, the parent of a Mission Hill student.
Acevedo said she's heard reports of bullying, which she brought up to teachers. But she said nothing was ever done.
"I feel like they don't really care about the students," she said.
Acevedo has a fifth grader at the school and a daughter who used to attend Mission Hill and both experienced bullying there.
"They should have been taking action a long time ago, because my daughter used to come here and she was actually jumped right outside the school," she said. "The school has a lot of issues."
The school district said the staff members directly related to the allegations in the report are either no longer employed by the district or are on leave.