Sitting on eclectic vintage furniture in a quaint Brookline home, nine community members passed around a tin of mixed nuts and paper cups of strawberry kiwi sparkling water as they discussed what they saw as several cases of racial injustice in Brookline public schools.
“We have one set of rules for Asians, Latinos and Blacks, and another set of rules for others,” Arthur Conquest said as he hosted the Mass Occupy race subcommittee meeting last month.
The treatment of teachers of color within the district has become an issue with some community members who believe that it is harder for these teachers to advance to positions of higher authority because they are offered fewer opportunities and work under more scrutiny.
The committee members cited the case of teacher Larry Chen as one of several examples.
In late-September, Chen, a seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher at the Michael Driscoll School, was put on administrative leave after allegedly swearing in front of two high school juniors after school hours. But a community outcry over the action resulted in the school committee announcing that Chen will return to his position on Nov. 5.
Despite the reprieve, some residents say the Asian-American teacher’s temporary punishment looks like another alleged case of discrimination against minority teachers within Brookline.
“Obviously nobody wants to say that racism played a part in this,” said Andrew Leong, a social justice lawyer who lives in Brookline. “But if you begin to look at case after case after case, the history of how we have not fairly treated candidates of color … begins to mount a different picture where you really need to understand the racial overtones and the racial context of these singular acts.”
Leong believes the way administrators handle these cases has created an atmosphere in which teachers of color are denied access to further opportunities.
Nearly four years ago, Adrian Mims filed a discrimination lawsuit against the school district claiming he was denied a headmaster position because he is black. Mims worked in the Brookline school district for 18 years as a tutor, teacher and eventually as the dean of students for Brookline High School before becoming one of six finalists for the headmaster position.
Mims holds a doctorate degree – one of the preferred qualifications listed in the town’s job posting – but was passed over for a less-qualified candidate who did not have a doctorate.
After filing the suit in 2012, Mims told the Boston Globe he heard that one of the 24 members of the hiring committee said that Brookline High was “not ready” for a black headmaster. In his complaint, Mims also said former Superintendent William Lupini had a “poor track record” of employing African Americans in high-level positions.
The school district and Lupini denied all allegations, but paid Mims $80,000 in a settlement agreement to drop his complaint against Brookline schools. Mims could not be reached for comment.
Leong said that the case is one example of the school system failing to set an example of racial equality and using its position of power against candidates of color.
“That inaction by the town is very informing of the kind of access that aggrieved candidates of color have, and it’s exceptionally unfortunate,” Leong said. “We’ve always denied people of color opportunities based on, ‘Oh, they’re not qualified.’ But here is one case example where the person of color is more qualified than the white person, yet we overlooked the qualification of this person and hired the white woman instead.”
Other community members at the meeting said the district also fails to address racial incidents among students.
Last June, four students included explicit language and racial slurs targeting African Americans in a PowerPoint presentation to their 10th-grade chemistry class. The phrase “mo’fucker ain’t done shit, n****” was made clearly visible at the end of a short paragraph containing science data. The teacher stopped the presentation upon seeing the epithet.
School officials did not inform parents of the incident until after hours on the last day of school, leaving them without an opportunity to contact administrators with questions.
In an email to parents, administrators said they would notify them of any updates, but there was no follow-up.
Felina Silver Robinson has three children in the district and said she never received any notification of disciplinary action against the students involved. Instead, over the summer, school officials sent a letter to parents introducing a new elective course at the high school titled, ‘Racial Seminar.’ Students interested in the course had to fill out an application including an essay. Robinson’s 14-year-old daughter Ariana is enrolled in the class.
Robinson said she believes the course is an indirect response to the incident, but by failing the address the issue head-on, the school is allowing it to linger. She said the school’s policy does not allow them to divulge disciplinary actions with other students or parents.
“I think [that] is a mistake because then the children don’t truly understand that there are consequences for the behavior that they indulge in,” she said. “Ariana is now participating [in this class] so that they can say, ‘Oh we’re doing something about it without telling you why they’re doing it.”
To some, it just looks like a new elective, Robinson said.
“But that’s not really what it is — it’s their way of dealing with something that they didn’t really even want to address with the students and the families in the first place.”
Ariana said if the punishment was announced, she hoped it would create a more inclusive environment at the high school.
“Hopefully people would confess and understand that there’s going to be consequences and that [their actions] can make people feel unsafe,” she said. “I think some people, just because they’re ignorant, [would] just ignore it. But others will think that it’s serious and try to change it.”
Robinson, a resident of Brookline for 49 years, said the school district’s attitude towards racial issues is long-standing. After helping spearhead a movement to remove the image of an Indian chief’s head from the gymnasium floor, her older daughter, who has since graduated, received death threats and other harassment.
The school’s mascot was an Indian chief until the early 90s, when the mascot was changed from the Brookline Indians to the Brookline Spartan Warriors.
“She felt it was very disrespectful to us as Native Americans to be stepped upon,” Robinson said. “She was actually afraid to go back to school. The police said that she should’ve filed charges — she didn’t. And the school administration didn’t do anything. They didn’t feel it was a racial issue, but obviously it was. They just didn’t want to take responsibility for it.”
The school committee did not respond to several requests for comment.
Robinson believes there is a problematic lack of response to racial issues that stems from low diversity numbers among teachers and administrators throughout the school district.
The most recent census data for Brookline indicates that the student population is more diverse than the population of the neighborhood. Nearly 44 percent of the 7,508 students in the Brookline Public School district identify as minorities, according to the 2014 data from the Department of Education. Census data shows conversely that only roughly 27 percent of residents in Brookline are individuals of color.
The majority of students of color are Asian-American at 19 percent, followed by Hispanic students at 10 percent, multi-race students at 9 percent and African American students at 6 percent. Roughly 12 percent of the 1,134 teachers in the district identify as persons of color.
“Part of the problem is, if you look at the makeup of the town and in the administration itself, there’s no diversity,” Robinson said. “So how are you going to understand how things need to be, if this is the makeup of the people who are making the decisions and making the punishments?”
Robinson said increasing the number of minorities within the administration would help foster identification and discussion of racial issues. With different backgrounds and more knowledge, a diverse administration would be better able to reflect the population they are serving.
Changes in the makeup of teachers and administration has been slow and it is discouraging that these issues continue to be ignored, Robinson said.
“Of course they’re going to brush everything under the rug because they don’t want anyone to see that there is actually a problem,” she said. “It’s really frustrating as a person of color or difference to see that they just still don’t care.”