A tale of two school systems and how they responded to transphobic incidents

In Amherst, student journalists have reported that three middle school counselors engaged in anti-transphobic behavior, leading to suspensions while school officials investigate. In Middleborough, a seventh-grader who was sent home from school for wearing anti-trans T-shirts is claiming that his First Amendments rights have been violated.

Fortunately, the struggle for transgender dignity and respect is playing out differently in Massachusetts than it is in places like Florida and other red states, where the very existence of trans folks is under attack. Still, transphobia is everywhere, and all of us are faced with the challenge of protecting the LGBTQ community in a way that acknowledges everyone’s right to be heard.

I want take a look at the situation in Amherst first because it was brought to light by an intrepid group of students at Amherst Regional High School — 16 of them, who helped report a 4,800-word story for The Graphic, a 109-year-old student publication produced by the school’s journalism classes.

According to their story, published on May 9, three middle school counselors have “routinely misgendered and deadnamed transgender students and staff, invoked anti-LGBTQ prayer at school, allowed religion to overflow into conversations with students and staff, and failed to provide support to students who were facing gender-based bullying or intimidation at school.”

The article is deeply reported and well-documented, although I should add that the three counselors, Hector Santos, Delinda Dykes and Tania Cabrera, have denied the allegations. Cabrera is Santos’ daughter and is a new hire, though her actions reportedly are in a similar vein.

Astonishingly, The Graphic also reports that students, parents and school staff members have expressed concerns to top administrators, yet no action was taken until after their story was published. On May 11, Scott Merzbach of The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that three counselors have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. School Supt. Michael Morris declined to identify the three or to confirm if they were the trio named by The Graphic.

The Graphic’s story is filled with disturbing details, but I want to focus on one anecdote that I found particularly telling. A secretary identified pseudonymously as John said he was once invited to take part in a private prayer circle held on school property by Santos and Dykes. According to The Graphic:

At first, he didn’t see the harm. He said he identifies as both a Christian and an LGBTQ supporter.

“I was exploring my spiritual side at that time,” he said, noting that the circle did not involve students or teachers. “I thought we were just going to pray for strength to get us through the day. Who doesn’t need that?” But things shifted quickly. He alleges that after some introductory prayers, Dykes changed lanes, saying, “‘In the name of Jesus, we bind that LGBTQ gay demon that wants to confuse our children.”

John said he felt an immediate “tightness in my chest. I looked to the door, wanting to run.” He left shortly afterward, told a trusted colleague he felt they “were crazy to be saying that,” never joined their prayer circle again, and tried to avoid the two at work, making polite talk but keeping his distance.

According to the article, John reported the incident to Marta Guevara, the school’s director of student and family engagement, who in turn reported it to Supt. Morris — one of several disturbing incidents she brought to Morris’ attention. Yet there is no evidence that Morris did anything about it before he announced last week’s suspensions.

I also want to highlight The Graphic’s explanation of the care that it took in reporting the story, which appears at the bottom of the article:

All sources who are referred to by a first-name-only pseudonym wished to remain anonymous. Parents and children sought anonymity on the basis of privacy and an ongoing legal investigation. Some staff members sought anonymity due to fear of retaliation. Some staff members who are named did not speak to The Graphic but were copied on email correspondences that were shared with us by parents or hold district titles related to this report. Nothing in this article was reported secondhand; all stories and facts were provided by firsthand sources in person or via Zoom, phone, or email interviews. We reached out to everyone who was described as engaging in behaviors by others — rather than by their own account — and offered them the right of reply to each allegation. The children interviewed consented to the publication of their stories, as did their parents. The students and their journalism adviser consulted with a lawyer from the Student Press Law Center before publishing this report.

The adviser, by the way, is Sara Barber-Just, an English teacher at Amherst Regional High School who in 2014 was honored by Williams College with the George Olmsted Jr. Class of 1924 Prize for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching. It sounds like the student journalists at her school are being extraordinarily well served.

***

If school officials in Amherst were slow to investigate incidents of anti-trans hate, officials in Middleborough might have been a little too quick. Liam Morrison, a seventh-grader at the Nichols Middle School, has been sent home from school twice, according to Christopher Butler of The Enterprise — the first time for wearing a T-shirt that read “There Are Only Two Genders” and, the second time, for amending that to “There Are (Censored) Genders.”

Now, there’s no doubt that Liam is learning some hateful lessons at home. The question, though, is whether he has a First Amendment right to express those views in a school setting. Sandy Quadros Bowles of Nemasket Week reports that his choice of attire has been the subject of a school committee meeting as well as a demonstration by anti-trans activists and counterprotesters.

Liam is being represented by the American Family Institute, a religious-right organization that says that it’s planning to take legal action against the school system. Samuel Whiting, lawyer with the institute, claims that Middleborough educators are “doubling down on its violation of Liam’s free speech rights.”

School officials, by contrast, argue that the T-shirts violate state law because they “may be reasonably considered intimidating, hostile, offensive or other unwelcome.’’ In addition, the school system’s dress code states: “Clothing must not state, imply, or depict hate speech or imagery that target groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, or any other classification.”

So, are Liam’s free speech rights being violated or not? I think it’s a close call. State law presumably has more to do with how teachers, administrators and other employees behave than with students. School dress codes, on the other hand, may be enforced as long as they are reasonable. This ACLU guide to dress codes suggests that the Middleborough code might go too far, though, noting, “All students, whether transgender or cisgender, must be allowed to wear clothing consistent with their gender identity and expression,” and “Schools can’t discriminate based on the viewpoint expressed by your clothing.”

Given all that, it seems likely that Liam Morrison may be correct in claiming that his free speech rights are being violated. His choice of wardrobe is unfortunate, to say the least, and he and his parents really ought to think about why they find it necessary to express hatred toward his transgender classmates. But he has a right to do it.

Let’s hope that he’s soon confronted with a sea of pro-LGBTQ T-shirts.

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Leak suspect and his online friends are big fans of Putin

Vladimir Putin. Photo (cc) 2014 by Global Panorama.

Here’s a data point to keep an eye on. From The Wall Street Journal (free link):

The people in the online spaces where Airman First Class Jack Teixeira spent his time and allegedly leaked highly classified documents had many things in common. In obscure game forums and private online chat rooms, his friends posted slurs against minority communities, Ukrainians and pretty much everyone else.

Everyone, that is, except Russians.

Members of that small community, hosted on the social-media app Discord, admired President Vladimir Putin’s regime and its war on Ukraine.

The MBTA’s Medford/Tufts restrooms are a real pisser

Phillip Eng, the new head of the MBTA, is going to quickly find out that it’s not just the big things, it’s the little things, too.

Earlier today I made the mile-and-a-half walk from my house to the new, underused Tufts Green Line station. I’d had a big cup of coffee before I left the house, but I figured I could use one of the two restrooms that are right next to the ticket machine. They were locked.

It wasn’t that long ago that they were unlocked. Then, the last time I needed to use one, an employee saw me and unlocked it so I could use it. Remembering that, I knocked on the door of the employees’ lounge. Oh, those aren’t for the public, I was told. What?

Then I saw one of the doors open, so I tried to enter. An employee grabbed the door and prevented me from using it. I let it go — I didn’t want to get charged with assault. Fortunately my bladder calmed down, though I didn’t.

What is this crap? Davis Square has public restrooms. It’s a much more crowded station, and they can get kind of disgusting. But when you gotta go, you gotta go. By contrast, Tufts is a clean, underutilized station with two restrooms, and you can’t use them.

The MBTA’s contempt for the riding public knows no bounds.

All aboard the GLX

I didn’t have to come to Northeastern today, but I was excited to try the Green Line Extension, which made its grand debut on Monday. So here I am.

My ride began at the new Medford/Tufts station at Boston and College avenues. It’s a mile and a half from my house and it was c-o-l-d, so my wife dropped me off on her way to work. There are a couple of buses I could have taken, too, although they don’t run as often as they should.

I walked inside the shiny new station, downstairs to the platform and then onto a train. There was no place to pay either before or after boarding, so the handful of us who were riding from Medford got a free pass. I don’t know about the other five new stations, but obviously that’s not a viable business plan; I assume payment options will be coming soon. We sat there for a few minutes in the cold, with the doors open, and then pulled out at 7:27 a.m.

The ride was smooth and a lot zippier than I’m used to on the Green Line. We had a beautiful sunrise view of the Zakim Bridge as we crossed the channel before heading underground. Things began to bog down south of Science Park. The train finally got crowded at North Station, so I put on my mask. And then it was the usual slow roll the rest of the way.

We pulled in to Northeastern at 8:06. Thirty-nine minutes wasn’t bad at all, but it was closer to an hour when you add in getting to the station and then waiting for the train to start moving. I’ll probably stick with my usual commute — I’m a seven-minute walk from the West Medford commuter rail station, which gets me to North Station in 12 minutes. After that, I can take the Orange Line or the Green Line to campus depending on my mood and which comes first.

On the other hand, I’m teaching an evening class this fall, and the commuter rail rarely runs after rush hour. The Green Line may be an attractive alternative to paying for a Lyft.

Finally, a semi-unrelated observation: I couldn’t make out where the Somerville Community Path was, which struck me as odd. On rare occasions, I like to ride my bike to work, and this ought to be a better option than what’s available to me now. The path has been built out to Lechmere and runs along the tracks. I had hoped the path would be extended north to the Medford/Tufts station, but I don’t think that’s the case. From what I can tell, you’ll pick it up at Lowell Street in Somerville.

The Green Line Extension to Medford is looking good

I got a look at the almost-ready Medford/Tufts MBTA station on the Green Line Extension during a walk through Medford, Somerville and Arlington on Saturday. After many delays, the station is scheduled to open Dec. 12. Trolleys that originate there will be part of the E Line, which I’m pretty excited about because it will run directly to Northeastern without my having to change trolleys.

It’s a mile and a half from our house, which is kind of a schlep when you’re trying to get to work. But it’s not a bad bike ride when it’s nice out and not dark, and there may be times when I can get a ride from my wife or daughter. Also of note: A bike path runs alongside the tracks into the city, which may make for a better ride to campus, something I like to do occasionally.

Now if only they’d extend it to northwest to Route 16. That was the original plan, but it fell victim to cost-cutting. Maybe someday.

The Globe’s report from Buenos Aires shows why we need a better bus system

We need more of these. Photo (cc) 2008 by the Mass. Office of Tourism.

The Boston Globe’s coverage of our public transportation crisis, already indispensable, rises to another level today with a report from Buenos Aires. Reporter Taylor Dolven finds that a  system nearly as old as Greater Boston’s is far more reliable than ours, despite Argentina’s daunting economic problems. The reason: They take safety and maintenance seriously. The story as a whole is a revelation, but this jumped out:

The trains may run on time in Buenos Aires, but most public transit riders take the bus.

Buses on 92 routes that were stuck in car traffic a decade ago now cruise past the gridlock in bus-only lanes on eight main avenues, stretching some 38 miles in total. Bus stops on these corridors, called Metrobus, have roofs, lighting, seating, and sometimes countdown clocks, and the bus lanes are separated from car traffic with barriers.

The bus trip between two popular train terminals in the city used to take as long as an hour. Now it takes 30 minutes tops.

The MBTA could do much more with buses, by far the cheapest option for moving large numbers of people. Unlike rail, you don’t have to install tracks. Unlike rail, you can modify and add routes in response to changes in where people live and work. The key is to set aside bus-only lanes in many more places so that they can zip through as efficiently as subways and trolley cars. We’ve only begun to do that.

Yes, of course we need commuter rail, subways and trolleys. More than anything, though, we need to stop treating buses as an afterthought.

The Mystic Valley Charter School is once again accused of discrimination

Note: I’ve blurred out the school staff member’s name

The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School is back in the news and, as usual, it’s for all the wrong reasons. This time it’s for sending a Muslim female student home because she was wearing a hijab in violation of the school’s uniform policy, according to Lara Salahi of NBC Boston. The school admitted to it and said all the family needed to do was seek an accommodation ahead of time. But why should they have to ask permission to practice their religion?

In a message sent out on Aug. 19, School Supt. Alexander Dan claims that the brouhaha was the result of “one of the child’s older siblings posting misleading information about this issue on social media.” Yet the “School Uniform Compliance Form” is as clear as can be — the student was punished for wearing a hijab without permission, an obvious violation of her First Amendment right to freedom of religion. “Hijab” is misspelled “jihab,” which, as one Facebook wag noticed, manages to combine “hijab” with “jihad.”

Mystic Valley is a public charter school that receives tax money.

Dan’s message is remarkably self-pitying, as he goes on to cite — and link to an audio recording of — a threatening message received by a school staff member. The message, Dan writes, “contains extremely offensive, obscene language,” and Malden Police were notified. Obviously that shouldn’t have happened, but this is about the school’s ongoing racist practices rather than the reaction to those practices.

In 2017, I gave Mystic Valley a GBH News New England Muzzle Award for banning hair extensions, an action that disproportionately affected young Black women. Black students with long braids and dreads were taken to the office and inspected to see if they were wearing extensions. Punishment was meted out, including detention and suspension from activities such as athletics and the prom. That fiasco led to an investigation by Attorney General Maura Healey and a settlement in which the school promised to behave itself in the future. Just recently, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law the CROWN Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of hair style and which was motivated in part by Mystic Valley’s actions.

In 2020, The Boston Globe’s Hayley Kaufman reported on concerns among alumni that the school was hampered by a “culture that penalized students who spoke out about inequities, while seeming to shrug off reports of bias.”

And now this. The time has come for the state to mete out some serious penalties.

By the way … sorry for the reproductions. I doubt you’ll be able to read them on a phone, but you should be able to read them on a laptop or tablet.

Can Medford afford a property-tax override? Taking a look at the data.

Winthrop Circle, looking toward Medford Square. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy

Warning: Hardcore Medford post ahead.

Forty years of Proposition 2-1/2 have caught up with us in Medford. City Councilors Zac Bears and Kit Collins have proposed a $12 million override, which they say is needed to solve our long-term structural deficit. Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn, seeking a compromise, has come back with a counteroffer for an override that would add $3 million to the property-tax levy.  Thanks to Gannett, all of this is playing out in the absence of any regular news coverage.

The debate is going to come down to whether Medford residents can afford to pay more property taxes. I’ve attempted to provide some baseline numbers, drawing on data from the state and the U.S. Census. (Thanks to those of you who helped me find what I needed.) You can look at those numbers here. Let me offer a few takeaways.

First, Medford’s residential property-tax rate is very low — just $9.01 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, placing us at No. 317 of the 348 cities and towns for which I was able to get data. (There are 351 municipalities in the state.) But that’s an irrelevant number, derived from our soaring property values. So let’s get to the good stuff.

Second, our property-tax burden per capita, based on a residential property tax levy of $105.3 million, is $1,766. That puts Medford at No. 248, or in the 29th percentile. By that measure, the property-tax burden here is relatively low. The per capita burden in bordering communities: $4,676 (Winchester, No. 23); $2,911 (Arlington, No. 95); $1,798 (Somerville, No. 244); $1,244 (Malden, No. 321); and $947 (Everett, No. 338). Everett is not an affluent community, but I suspect its property-tax burden is unusually low because of the taxes paid by the Encore casino.

Now, that tells you a lot. But our third breakdown should be the most useful, because it’s based on some measure of whether a community can actually afford its residential property taxes. I’ve taken the tax burden per capita and divided it by median household income. That might sound like apples-and-oranges, but it’s not, since I’m doing it consistently for all 348 cities and towns. In other words, the percentage for any one community may not mean much, but the ranking should work as a pretty accurate measure. Let me walk us through this a bit more carefully.

In Medford, the median household income is $101,168, which makes us a relatively affluent community (No. 129). With per capita residential taxes of $1,766, that gives us 1.75% for property-tax burden as a percentage of per capita income. By that measure, Medford is No. 313. That puts us at the 10th percentile. In other words, the property-tax burden is higher in 90% of Massachusetts communities than it is in Medford. Again, let’s look at our neighboring cities and towns.

  • Winchester, 2.7% (No. 108)
  • Arlington, 2.54% (No. 133)
  • Somerville, 1.76% (No. 308)
  • Malden, 1.67% (No. 324)
  • Everett, 1.25% (No. 341)

Let me offer one final calculation. If you add the mayor’s proposed $3 million override to our total tax levy of $105.3 million, that would be an increase of a little more than 2.8%. If you go with the Bears-Collins proposal to add $12 million, that’s 11.4%. That latter move would bring the property-tax burden as a percentage of per capita income to 1.94% and move Medford up to No. 265. But we would still be in just the 24th percentile, with residents of 76% of other communities paying more of their income on property taxes.

One argument we’re already hearing is that the override — especially the more aggressive $12 million override — is being pushed by affluent newcomers to Medford, and that longtime residents can’t afford it. There is something to that. If you’ve lived here for all or most of your life, you may very well be house-rich but relatively income-poor. We don’t want to force residents into selling because they can’t afford to pay their taxes. Property values are already spiraling out of control in Medford — up 10.1% between June 2021 and June 2022, according to Redfin.

By every objective measure, though, Medford residents can afford either override option, and even the higher of the two would still leave us well below the state average.

Correction: I’ve rewritten the top to clarify that Councilors Bears and Collins’ proposal came first, followed by Mayor Lungo-Koehn’s counterproposal.

Moskva or Moscow? Zelenskyy or Zelensky? Looking into a few linguistic puzzles.

Moscow University. Or is that Moskva? Photo (cc) 2007 by annaspies.

This morning I thought I’d indulge in a little linguistic trivia arising from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. I’m hardly an expert — I took Russian for a few years in high school and college but never learned to speak it. (At one time I could read it — very, very slowly.) So take this with a few grains of salt.

First, the name of the Russian missile cruiser that was attacked and heavily damaged by Ukrainian forces has been identified as the Moskva. You may also know that Moskva is the Russian word for Moscow. In the Cyrillic alphabet, it’s Москва. So why do we Anglicize the name of the city but not the ship? It is one of the great mysteries.

Second, we are told that Volodymyr Zelenskyy prefers the English version of his name with two y’s on the end. The Associated Press has decided to go with that preference as well. But others, including The New York Times, spell it Zelensky, with one “y.”

I would argue that Zelensky with one “y” actually makes more sense. President Zelenskyy is not a native English speaker (although he’s pretty fluent), and went with Zelenskiy before settling on two “y’s.” The Cyrillic version of his name is closer to Zelenskee than Zelenskyy. You may have seen what it looks like on Zelenskyy’s Twitter profile: Зеленський. Proper transliteration should be based on pronunciation.

Finally, what’s up with Kyiv versus Kiev? Here, at least, I think we’ve all gotten it right. Kyiv is pronounced slightly differently, and the Ukrainians argue that Kiev is an artifact of Russian domination. So Kyiv it is.