Friday, February 23, 2024

Students linger after the end of the school day April 12, 2016, at Cambridge Rindge and Latin to participate in and watch a protest in recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. (Photo: Jean Cummings)

An “action plan” to address sexual harassment and assault, particularly at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school and upper schools, received enthusiastic School Committee support last week.

The plan proposed by Mayor E. Denise Simmons includes recommendations to appoint a Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention Task force at the high school and upper schools made up of staff, students and outside experts to develop training requirements; that all staff and students should complete learning modules on the subject; and that elementary schools should be reviewed for their success at creating a “climate of respect.” It also began identifying sources for best practices.

A recent study found that more than 25 percent of high school boys and more than half of high school girls “experienced sexual assault within and outside school,” reported Cassie Luna of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center during public comment. Last year, she said, the center served more than 14,000 youths and adults.

Simmons, who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, convened a working advisory committee not long after an April 2016 walkout by students at the high school, led by its Club 1/Feminist Club to raise awareness of ongoing problems. The nine-page recommendations follows the format of the Club 1 letter to high school administration read aloud at the April walkout, Student committee member Paul Sullivan said, including changes to the protocol for receiving and responding to victims of harassment or assault, training for teachers and changing school culture.

Simmons’ committee had broad membership, including high school and upper school students and staff, and representatives from the City Council, School Committee (Kathleen Kelly and Manikka Bowman), Public Health Department, Human Services programs, Domestic and Gender Based Violence Prevention Initiative, Cambridge Health Alliance, Cambridge Women’s Commission, YWCA and rape crisis center. The group has met seven times since last April, the motion says.

Five representatives spoke in public comment to urge immediate implementation. Luna was joined by Elizabeth Speakman, of the city’s Violence Prevention Initiative; the Cambridge Women’s Commissioner Kimberly Sansoucy; and Venus Taylor and Risa Mednick, family liaison and executive director of Transition House.

“You need to take an active approach,” Luna said. “How a school responds can make or break they way a victim heals.”

Transition House’s Mednick noted an ongoing citywide initiative on sexual assault and abuse. “The exciting thing about the [citywide Domestic and Gender Based Violence Initiative] is that it was both a grassroots initiative and a citywide one coming together simultaneously,” she said. “The education sector is missing the most, and we really do miss you.”

Member Patty Nolan wondered how to ensure a “level of urgency,” but Superintendent Kenneth Salim assured her of his own enthusiasm for the recommendations and promised a point person to lead the initiative.

Some of the recommendations, such as the training, are already happening in the high school and upper schools, Kelly said, expressing appreciation of partner organizations’ commitment and expertise. Many vowed to remain involved.

“The fact that the five of them came to speak today,” Kelly said, “speaks to how important they think this work is.”

Public comment, language immersion

Committee members have said families should not rely on public comment to get an issue addressed, and Simmons, who as mayor leads committee meetings, has made it clear she does not like to see public comment on topics not on the agenda. Bowman, pointing to parental concerns about the Putnam Avenue Upper School, expressed frustration that it got to the point parents felt they had to appeal publicly.

Despite there also being several months of data illustrating the school’s struggles, though, it was the families’ public appeal that seemed to spark action.

And Tuesday’s meeting suggested that speaking at public comment continues to be an important tool for families with concerns on their minds. Parents speaking about the Martin L. King School’s Chinese program noted they have been in contact with Chief Operating Officer Jim Maloney to better understand the ins and outs of the lottery issue they confront, yet appeared to urge the committee to reconsider policy.

Ryuji Morishita and Jason Homsy are parents of young students whom they would like to see in the Chinese Immersion program. Morishita moved from out of state last year, where his two children had been in Chinese Immersion. In Cambridge, the third-grader was admitted to the MLK Immersion program, but his first-grader not only is not in immersion, but has been placed at a different school. He urged the committee to reconsider a system that does not “keep families together.”

He also raised a common complaint, particularly for folks new to the school system: The need to keep a socioeconomic status balance in schools and classrooms often leads to lopsided waitlists. While his first-grader is at the top of the waitlist, because of the SES ratio “as many as five paid-lunch students must leave” before his daughter can attend.

Homsy had a different issue to raise. Because students at the non-immersion Ni Hao program at MLK now have priority in transferring into the immersion program after junior kindergarten, in reality it’s becoming impossible to enter the immersion program in kindergarten if you are a paid-lunch family not already in the Ni Hao program, he said. Counting this year’s current Immersion junior kindergarten students and the Ni Hao junior kindergarten students who opt to transfer in, there were only nine slots left for next year’s kindergarten class. Because most of the internal transfers were paid-lunch students, there were slots for only three new paid-lunch kindergarten students. “Why waste a lottery choice of the Chinese Immersion school in that case?” Homsy asked. Homsy asked that at the very least, the internal transfers into the program should be SES balanced.

The language immersion programs – Amigos’ Spanish, Portuguese at the King Open School’s Olá program, and Chinese at MLK – continue to have difficulty managing the lottery and waitlists because of the need to balance the SES balance and language-related requirements.

Superintendent review, teacher certification

The committee passed unanimously a motion by member Emily Dexter laying out a superintendent evaluation schedule. Although superintendents are required by state law to be evaluated every year, Cambridge was lax with former superintendent Jeff Young. The motion sets Sept. 12 as the deadline for completion of a first review for Salim, who started in July. The evaluation meeting will be held either at the summer meeting July 25, or at another meeting later in the summer. In either case, the final date is to be announced by June 6.

A motion by Kelly and Fantini to encourage district hiring of dual- or triple-certified teachers was passed quickly. Noting that 2015 federal law replaced the requirements for “highly qualified teachers” with a focus on “appropriately certified teachers,” the motion asks that the Superintendent “authorize” Executive Director of Human Resources Barbara Allen “in consultation with principals” to hire teachers with combinations of certifications that could include content area, special education or others.

Other business

The committee also passed three motions by Dexter to congratulate: CRLS staff member Betsy Bard for writing and producing “Circle Up!,” described as an “investigative theater” piece about race and opportunity gaps at the high school, as well as director Vincent Ernest Siders and the Youth Underground Theater Co.; high school staff member Monica Murray and the theater department for its production of scenes from “Angels in America”; and committee student representative Sullivan “for his expressive, witty and moving performance as Prior Walter” in “Angels.”

The committee passed unanimously and without comment an annual recommendation that the district not participate in a State Choice School Program, which allows students from other towns to attend Cambridge public schools; contracts of $28,000 for out-of-district tuition, $54,000 for out-of-district student transportation, $26,700 for computer software, $44,000 for two 3-D printers for the Rindge School of Technical Arts, $60,000 for carpentry and maintenance supplies and $27,000 for automotive-related supplies for RSTA; and acceptance of $1,000 in grants from Cambridge Health Alliance’s Let’s Move Program.

This post was updated May 8, 2017, to correct the spelling of Jason Homsy’s name and the number and nature of open slots in the Ni Hao program.