In the coming weeks, US Attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, is expected to announce the results of an investigation into alleged racial harassment and discrimination at Boston Latin High, the city’s premier public exam school. The probe started after Ortiz created a full-time civil rights unit in her administration. Many welcomed the BLS inquiry. But some question the motive behind the investigation.
US Attorney Ortiz says it’s no great mystery why she decided to investigate Boston Latin School. She says it’s because she was asked.
“It was brought to our attention through a variety of different groups from the ACLU to the NAACP, as well as the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights they provided a complaint that brought the matter to our attention.”
That took place back in February prompting the US Attorney to look into allegations of racial harassment publicized by two black students. Civil rights groups also asked Ortiz to probe systemic issues that has led to under-representation of black and Latino students. The investigation is ongoing. Witnesses are being interviewed and high-level officials are involved.
“Both superintendent Tommy Chang as well as mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, have pledged their full cooperation,” said Ortiz.
When asked about the scope of the investigation Ortiz would only say:
“Federal statutes that are set are very specific as to what is and what isn't discrimination. And so we will look at the law, we’ll look at the facts as they are developed based on our investigation and then will come to certain conclusions.”
Ortiz’s decision to investigate has won plaudits from many, like Attorney Lisa Thurau-Gray of Strategies for Youth in Cambridge.
“I think it's great that the US attorney's office and the office of civil rights is suggesting that this warrants investigation and review. “
She says a federal probe shows what is at stake.
“It is critical that every effort be made to ensure that everyone has equal access and equal opportunity.”
But some parents asked why—literally— make a federal case out of this? I posed that question to Carmen Ortiz, asking her if members of the legal community were surprised that she had decided to investigate Boston Latin.
Ortiz said, “I don’t know, I guess you’ll have to go and ask them.”
So I did:
“It’s certainly unusual,” said Civil Libertarian Harvey Silverglate, who suggested other reasons for the US Attorney’s involvement in the Latin School conflict.
“If you ask me why she took it on because I think she really enjoys getting her fingers into various pies on of the state and the local level; pies, which really would be best left undisturbed by the federal government.”
Silverglate is suspicious of Ortiz’s motives based on what he argues is a pattern of prosecutorial over-reach.
“This U.S. Attorney’s Administration is taking on quite a few unusual cases that are of very questionable federal interest. Federal law has become like Silly Putty; you can make out of it whatever you want. So she has theoretically the jurisdiction, it's just that there's no real reason for federal intervention in the Latin School.”
But other experts disagree.
“If there is a complaint filed under federal civil rights law, federal government has an obligation to investigate, and if they find discrimination they have the obligation to seek a remedy.”
Gary Orfied is co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, a major research center on education and race. He’s familiar with Boston Latin having served as an expert on desegregation cases nationwide from years of teaching at Harvard University.
“It’s such an important resource in the city and the city is so heavily non-white and it's always been an issue about getting access to this great school.”
And Orfield says race and access to selective public schools is a concern for US Attorneys across the country.
“Counting Boston Latin we know of at least 15 exam schools that are being challenged in one way or another around the country on civil rights issues. We were very deeply involved in a comprehensive study of the problem in Buffalo, New York, where two schools were particularly targeted in the civil rights complaints.”
Harvey Silverglate says that the issues surrounding the Latin School should be dealt with at the local level.
“And I think what we don't want to do is anything that is going to threaten the academic culture of the Latin school. What we want to do is to enlarge the student body and enlarge the diversity of the student body, but without destroying the school.”
On that point Gary Orfield agrees. He’s long advocated increasing the enrollment at exam schools: But unlike Silverglate, he says, that may require federal intervention, as happened at the City Honors School of Buffalo.
“One of the reasons we recommended that the spaces be expanded in Buffalo. It's not a finite number that has to exist forever,” said Orfield. “Of course Boston Latin School had decades of being significantly integrated under the federal court order and I don't think anybody thinks that Boston Latin wasn’t a wonderful school throughout that period.”
But many fear that US Attorney Carmen Ortiz will not touch on the far ranging issues that have led to a predominately white and Asian student body at Latin. Orfield, for one, hopes the investigation will address the contradictions of merit.
“So we have a complicated society, a very unequal society, and the people who have the greatest merit may not have the highest test scores.”
Harvey Silverglate says that may be valid, but fears a federal probe may do more harm than good.
“And that’s what concerns me.”
Supporters and critics of the investigation are now awaiting the outcome. Carmen Ortiz won’t offer a time frame for the conclusion of her investigation.
“But we do want to be careful. We want to be thoughtful, sensitive to everyone and make sure that we're reaching out to everyone that we that we need to and that we should.”
Gary Orfied --"Boston Latin School had decades of being significantly integrated under the federal court order and I don't think anybody thinks that Boston Latin wasn’t a wonderful school throughout that period.”