The Exam School Choice #16: #BlackAtBLS

Boston Latin GateThe Parent Imperfect has so far been silent about a student action at the nation’s oldest public school that has captured local and national attention. #BlackAtBLS is certainly on the minds of just about everyone now at the school and many of the hundreds of families thinking about sending a seventh or a ninth grader to the school next year.

On the evening of Martin Luther King Day, Connie should have been finishing the ridiculous amount of Math homework she was given for the holiday weekend, but, instead, she was glued to her phone.

“Everyone’s talking about this video about being black at BLS. It’s really interesting. People are going to wear all black to school tomorrow if they are supporting this.”

I admit it. My first reaction was, “That’s great, but is your homework done?” Even when she read out a particularly disturbing tweet written by a student at another school, I didn’t really understand what was going on.

The next day, Connie went off to school dressed in black, which is not her usual fashion choice. Her commitment to stand out (a fate worse than detention for a 14-year-old) led me to check out the first #BlackAtBLS video. The video is a direct and very provocative statement of what it is like to be #BlackAtBLS by two young black women. It isn’t slick, but the message is very clear: BLS has a problem with racism and the school administration is aware of the problem, but hasn’t done nearly enough about it.

Global ImageIn the three weeks since the video came out, local newspapers have written several stories about the campaign, its leaders have testified before the Boston School Committee and appeared on TV and radio. #BlackAtBLS has proven itself to be a master in the use of social media and other new communications. BLS has gained national attention from the campaign, but certainly not the sort of attention that it desires. And the attention isn’t just national. I have received e-mails or other social media messages from people in England, El Salvador, South Africa, Sweden, Costa Rica, Peru, Turkey and Nicaragua, all asking me what’s up with this supposedly outstanding school where I’ve sent my kids. If only good news traveled so quickly. Yes, I can be a snarky critic of BLS, but I care about the school it hurts to confront this side of a community that has played a huge role in my family life for the past seven years.

One week after the release of the #BlackAtBLS video, the Headmaster released a “Memo to the Boston Latin School Community.” The memo was promptly posted to the school website and distributed to students, parents, teachers and staff. I commend Ms. Mooney Teta for responding promptly to the campaign. Her response is frank and heartfelt, and makes several important statements, but it disappoints me in a couple of key ways.

auditorium 2First of all, it fails to validate the concerns of BLS B.L.A.C.K. by acknowledging that there is a problem of racism at the school. The statement lends itself to the soothing notion that these are isolated incidents in which students unfortunately feel that they are victims of racism. At least as importantly, while Ms. Mooney Teta’s memo emphasizes that, “We need to insure that hateful, intolerant, disrespectful speech or actions will not be considered acceptable anywhere at BLS,” it fails to acknowledge that students have brought evidence of such speech and actions to the administration and that the response of the administration has ranged from inadequate to nonexistent.

I fully understand the risks of validating the concerns of this campaign, and acknowledging the shortcomings of one’s own leadership in this regard, but the risks of not doing so are much greater. It seems clear that without such validation and acknowledgement, it will be hard to move forward as a community toward addressing this problem. The last few weeks of publicity have hurt the public image of the school in the Boston community and beyond. That damage can certainly be repaired, but only if the entire school community is convinced that BLS is committed to becoming a community that truly celebrates diversity and insists on mutual respect among all members.

TestimonyWhen the young women in the #BLackAtBLS video testified before the Boston School Committee, a Committee member asked them what sort of support they had received from parents at the school. The answer that they hadn’t yet received concrete actions of support from parents was a painful one for all parents in the audience to hear. Since that time, the Parent-to-Parent group, a subcommittee of the Parent Council, has discussed #BlackAtBLS and made plans to support it. Other parents have taken steps to form groups to support particular groups of students at the school, such as students of color and LGBT students. A group of parents even stayed at the school for 90 minutes after an exhausting Parent Open House this past Thursday to discuss engaging with the school administration over these issues. Now that students have taken the risks to get this discussion started, maybe we parents will find ways to take a few of our own risks to support them.



Filed under Boston Public Schools, Exam Schools

7 responses to “The Exam School Choice #16: #BlackAtBLS

  1. TGR

    I’m not sure why you quoted “isolated incidents” when referencing Mooney Teta’s letter, since she didn’t use that term.

    • Thanks, TGR, for your question. You make a good point. LMT did not use the phrase “isolated incidents” in her memo, so putting this in quotes might give the wrong impression. I will change this in the post. I do, however, note that when people speak about their interaction with the administration (not just the Headmaster) around past incidents of perceived harassment or discrimination, this language of “isolated incidents” comes up a lot. If this is the perception of the administration, then that needs to change. If the administration doesn’t perceive these as “isolated incidents,” then it would be important to describe them in another way, and build a plan of action based on that description.

  2. Angela

    PI, I get that I should get off the couch and do something. But one challenge is that how a child relates to the rest of the world — those attitudes start at home, regardless of any ingrained culture at school that a parent group could influence. (This is not to minimize the high value of parents being involved, period.) When we’re talking about racism, which still confounds our larger society, and there’s not a corresponding emphasis to counteract it within the institution of school — no one should be surprised there’s a problem. Even after our leaders publicly declared that racism has no place in BPS, we’ve seen that other adults and students alike in the BLS community were not exactly agreeing in unison with Meggie and Kylie’s assertions. (Did kids you know say anything about how their teachers have reacted?) The school is too big, the atmosphere focuses students on other things, and it’s majority white: Of course there’s some racism. If we thought that the superiority of BLS students extended beyond their ability to gain admission and survive it — #blackatbls is a good reminder that there are values we may want our kids to learn that aren’t front and center at school. Does the school want empathy to be part of the mission? Creativity? Maybe not. But yes, at least right now, we might take some time to emphasize more respect for others.

    • Wow, Angela, there’s a lot in that comment. Thanks! First of all, I have only heard of one teacher that talked about #BlackAtBLS in school. I expect that the teachers are talking among themselves, but not saying a lot to students. The problem with racism is not a surprise. I am surprised that the school isn’t a bit more proactive in dealing with it. I think that the composition of the student body has a lot to do with the problem, and I hope that this results in a real effort to change that over time. And I hope I didn’t sound like I was screaming for people to get off the couch. Few spend more time on the couch than yours truly. People are doing a lot, already, but, you’re right, it’s time to talk about mutual respect…even if that means getting up off the couch.

  3. Jamie

    Thank you for another thoughtful post.

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