Attorney General

Malden school suspends hair extension ban

SCREENSHOT FROM THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
“Even if I get expelled, I don’t care; the policy is inappropriate,” Mya Cook said.

By STEVE FREKER

MALDEN — A Malden-based charter school has suspended its policy ban on students wearing hair extensions for the remainder of the school year following a directive from state Attorney General Maura Healey’s office  on Friday that the policy “appears to be … clearly unlawful.”

Mystic Valley Regional Charter School’s (MVRCS) board of trustees met in a closed meeting Sunday night to review the school’s Uniform Policy regulations, which include the hair policy. Following the nearly three-hour meeting, interim Director Alexander Dan announced the action.

“The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School board of trustees unanimously voted tonight to suspend the hair section of the uniform policy for the remainder of the school year,” Dan said to some media members outside the meeting Sunday. “The school will continue to work with the attorney general’s office to ensure that the uniform policy reflects our long-standing commitment to the rights of all of our students.”

Dan also said students who were facing consequences for violating that policy may now also resume all school activities.

On Monday morning, the school released a detailed letter, where it stood by its overall Uniform Policy and cited its value and results.  “Our Uniform Policy is central to the success of our students. It helps provide commonality, structure, and equity to an ethnically and economically diverse student body while eliminating distractions caused by vast socio-economic differences and competition over fashion, style and materialism.”

The letter went on, “Our formula consistently delivers top results. Our African-American students have higher MCAS and SAT scores than African-American students from all other districts in our region, and nearly all attend college. Our dropout and attrition rates for African-American students are not only lower than those from our sending district, but they are lower than Caucasian rates. The role that our Uniform Policy plays in our results, and those of all our students, is not insignificant.”

The MVRCS dress code policy regarding hair extensions, where two sisters, who are black, received before and after school detentions and other punishments for refusing to remove hair extensions from their braids, has been at the center of a recent controversy which has been reported nationally.

School responds to hair policy uproar

The mother of the two MVRCS high school students contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), NAACP and state AG’s office asking those agencies to investigate the situation, citing what she called discrimination based on her daughters’ race.

The mother and her daughters were among a contingent of protesters who were present at the start of Sunday’s MVRCS Trustees meeting, a number of whom waited until the end of the meeting for news.

A letter sent to the school Friday after a meeting at the Malden Square headquarters of the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (DESE) stated: “State law prohibits discrimination by public schools, including charter schools, against students ‘on account of race, color, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin or  sexual orientation.’” The letter, obtained by NECN, reads: “We are concerned that MVRCS’s Hair/Make­Up policy violates state and federal law … by subjecting students of color, especially black students,  to differential treatment and thus denying them the same advantages and privileges of public education afforded to  other students.”

In its letter, Mystic Valley stated the school administration had already started implementing changes to its hair policy before the recent controversy, specifically to the provision against hair that is more than two inches in height.

“This change was made well before any outside interest group or government agency raised a concern, for the first time earlier this month, that our state-approved policy might be impacting any class of students unfairly,” the letter reads. “It should also be noted that in cases where a student had a substantiated religious or medical conflict with our policy, the school adjusted its policies to accommodate those concerns.”

Mystic Valley officials also stated they believed the existing policy would stand up in court, despite the AG’s assertions. “While we believe there is precedent confirming that our policy could stand a legal challenge … we do not wish to engage in a legal battle that would divert the focus and energy of our faculty and students, siphoning financial resources from the school and the students it serves,” the letter said.

The school will now work with the AG’s office on a Uniform Policy, and hair regulation, that “is consistent with our long-standing commitment to the rights of all our students,” stated the school’s letter.

City seeking student sanctuary

By BRIDGET TURCOTTE

LYNN — The School Committee adopted a policy to protect students from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“It would be bad if we turned our backs on these kids,” said Oscar Ross, who has a daughter in Lynn Public Schools who dreams of being both a police officer and a cook. “If we don’t give them the chance to be what they want to be.”

Mary Sweeney, a retired teacher, said that during her career, students had to worry about getting their homework done.

“I never faced situations of kids being deeply afraid,” said Sweeney. “I think with the issues of immigration and ICE — it’s a reality.”

The panel voted unanimously to adopt a policy that affirms the schools are safe and welcoming sanctuaries for all students, regardless of their immigration status. The document said the resolutions are intended to ensure that all Lynn Public Schools students have the same right to a free, public education and will be treated equally.

“The mission of Lynn Public Schools is to maintain a multicultural school community dedicated to the realization of the full intellectual, physical, social and emotional potential of its students,” reads the resolution. “The city is enriched and strengthened by its diverse cultural heritage, multinational population, and welcoming attitude toward newcomers.”

Committee member John Ford pointed out that while he agreed with where the resolutions were coming from, he believed they were only reaffirming what the district already does. Superintendent Dr. Catherine Latham agreed.

“I believe we have welcoming schools and that our teachers are wonderful and welcoming,” said Latham. “We have not had a case where ICE has come into our schools.”

She added that she believes ICE is restricted from taking immigrants into custody at schools and churches.

“Rather than us saying we already do that, we’ll be able to say that we have a policy for that,” said committee member Donna Coppola. “I think it would be a huge reassurance to our students. Let’s be upfront and be what we are — a proud community — and show others that we care.”

Immigrant-worker march set for Monday

Latham and committee members expressed concerns about a resolution included in the original draft that prohibited federal immigration law enforcement officers, or personnel assisting them, from entering a school building.

“I worry about training teachers not to allow law enforcement to come into the building,” she said.

Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy added that she was “very uncomfortable” with the section of the resolution because it should be recognized that federal law supersedes local law.

“It seems to me that it’s not a valid exercise of a city’s rights in the presence of federal government,” she said.

The panel amended the resolution to state that law enforcement can enter the building, but must remain in the main office until his or her credentials are verified and the superintendent is notified. The vote will be subject to final approval of the language.

Under the policy, the district will not inquire about, record, or request information intended to reveal the immigration status of a student or their family members. They will not disclose private information without parental consent, and staff will refuse to share all voluntary information with immigration agencies to the fullest extent permissible by the law.

All requests for information from a student’s education record will be immediately forwarded to the School Department’s attorney. The motion also noted that the district does not ask for immigration status when families register children for school.

A letter will be sent to parents and staff summarizing the resolutions in simple language. A list of all available resources, including community-based organizations and legal service organizations, will be provided to each student and made available at each school. It will be translated when necessary. Teachers will be trained on the policy before the start of the school year, when they become familiarized with all other policies.

In the next 90 days, Latham will be expected to develop a plan for training teachers, administrators and other staff on the new policy and best practices for ensuring the wellbeing of students, who may be affected by immigration enforcement actions. The plan will be implemented within five months.Legis

A copy of the resolution will be submitted to the Massachusetts Attorney General and to Lynn’s federal, state, and local legislative representatives.


Bridget Turcotte can be reached at bturcotte@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @BridgetTurcotte.

 

School sites in sight in Swampscott

FILE PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
This file photo shows Freddy Phillips, a Greenwood Ave. resident, talks about the fate of the former Swampscott Middle School.

By GAYLA CAWLEY

SWAMPSCOTT — Affordable homes will replace the shuttered Swampscott Middle School, but it may take a while.

The next step for town officials is to seek proposals from developers for the Greenwood Avenue building that closed in 2007.

Last month, Town Meeting approved zoning that would allow for construction of 28 affordable apartments.

The new request for proposals (RFP) has not been drafted or issued yet, according to Thomas Younger, town administrator.

Younger said the zoning bylaw must first be approved by the Attorney General. He expects to know by the end of August.

“We’re optimistic that they will approve it,” he said.

What may deter potential developers from responding to the RFP is the pending litigation between the town and Groom Construction, the Salem-based company that originally won approval for condominiums on the site.

Five years ago, voters adopted plans to turn the building into condominiums. But a group of abutters filed suit in 2014, opposing the revision in a neighborhood of single-family homes. A Massachusetts Land Court judge revoked the multi-family zoning, ruling that reuse of the school did not serve a public purpose. As a result, zoning was returned to single-family housing.

Officials are hoping Groom submits a bid as a compromise to the pending litigation. If the firm submits a bid and the lawsuit is settled, officials said there would be no risk of a much larger Chapter 40B affordable housing project and the developer would pay for the estimated $1 million demolition of the building.

The state’s controversial Chapter 40B housing program allows developers to override local zoning bylaws to increase the stock of affordable housing in municipalities where less than 10 percent of the homes are defined as affordable. Less than 4 percent of Swampscott’s housing is considered affordable, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Selectman Peter Spellios said the pending litigation must be disclosed in the RFP. When asked if Groom would likely be the only respondent during a pending lawsuit, he said the market is going to answer for itself.

“It’s hard to know what’s attractive to private developers,” Spellios said.

He said it is unclear whether Groom or another developer will answer the request for plans. Previously, Spellios has said he hopes Groom submits a bid.

“Whatever encourages and facilitates settlement and allows this to move forward is what I hope for,” Spellios said.

If the town loses the litigation, it may be forced to sell the property to Groom, who could then build a much larger 40B project, Spellios said. He said rezoning puts the option for a 28-unit project in front of the construction company.

The zoning change requires that at least 15 percent of the units be affordable. A second option would be to allow a builder to contribute to an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which would be used to pay for affordable housing elsewhere in town. That amount would be no less than 20 percent of the total proposed units multiplied by $25,000.

Spellios said part of the process is to continue talking with neighbors, who are worried about the project’s size.

Design concerns could be included in the RFP. For instance, the town could show a preference for projects that keep parking lots as far away from abutters as possible.

“We intend to continue those conversations now with the neighbors,” Spellios said.

Groom Construction’s owners, Tom and David Groom, did not return a call seeking comment.


Gayla Cawley can be reached at gcawley@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley

Swampscott town meeting

ITEM FILE PHOTO
Swampscott Town Hall

BY GAYLA CAWLEY

SWAMPSCOTT — Voters will decide tonight whether Rockland Street becomes the town’s newest historic district.

If Town Meeting gives it the green light, Rockland will join Frederick Law Olmsted, Swampscott Cemetery & Andrews Chapel, Fish House and the Railroad Depot districts. The designation preserves and protects significant buildings and places.

But George and Sarah Wattendorf, owners of the 1840’s Gothic Revival home and carriage house at 57 Rockland St. oppose the classification.

The couple, managers of Oceanview Real Estate LLC, bought the property last fall for $895,000. They want to downsize with their purchase and were drawn to the home’s oceanfront location.

The two want to demolish the 3,918-square-foot property and replace it with a two-family house, where they plan to retire.  In September, they applied for a demolition permit.

But the age of the building triggered a bylaw that protects historic dwellings. If a property is 75 years or older and is historically significant, the Swampscott Historical Commission can delay demolition. In January, the commission imposed a nine-month delay.

The proposed destruction of the Henry Hall House, as it is known, prompted neighbors to ask the commission about how to preserve the character and history of their neighborhood.

As a result, the idea for a local historic district, which would include 39 houses, including most of the properties on Rockland Street, two on Redington Street, one on Rose Street and another on Highland Street, was born.

If Town Meeting accepts the measure, the proposed district must be approved by the state Attorney General and filed at the Essex Registry of Deeds.

At that point, demolition or any large addition to the designated homes must be approved by the local panel.

The Wattendorfs insist the home cannot be saved and they are not interested in restoring it. The couple said they bought the home only to raze it, and that it had been abandoned for a year before their purchase.

Still, in a letter to the Item, Janet Moran wrote that her parents, John and Marilyn Moran, lived in the property for 49 years and left the home in “good condition.”  

“Until the sale of the house seven months ago, 57 was the gathering place for family and scores of friends celebrating holidays and special family events,” Moran said. “Wedding photographs were staged against the backdrop of the home’s beautiful marble fireplace and the stunning ocean panorama seen through bright expansive windows.”

Tim Donovan, of 39 Rockland St., said he is concerned the neighborhood could become “condo city” without zoning to prevent development. He cited the planned development district for the former Swampscott Middle School on Greenwood Avenue, which if approved at Town Meeting, would be turned into a 28-unit property.

“Unfortunately 57 was the spark that got the fire going,” Donovan said.

But Sarah Wattendorf called the historic district a “blatant attempt to take away our property rights,” in a letter to Town Meeting.

The Henry Hall House is named after its original owner, a Boston merchant. It was built on the crest of Wenepoykin Hill, an area of large stylish residences, densely settled on the hill to enjoy water views, according to town documents.

Town Meeting members will also decide whether to approve a proposal from B’Nai B’Rith Housing/Covenant Commonwealth Corp. to build an affordable senior housing project at the shuttered Machon Elementary School.

The nonprofit that builds affordable homes for seniors in Greater Boston, proposed Senior Residences at the Machon. Under the terms of the deal, the nonprofit would sign a 99-year ground lease for $500,000. The complex will include 38 one-bedroom units and three dozen parking spaces. B’Nai B’Rith would reuse the original 1920 building and demolish the 1963 addition.

Other features would include patio and lawn space for residents and access to Jackson Woods. A laundry facility, gym, library and multi-purpose common room would also be on-site.

Neighbors who oppose the project prefer open space on the site of the former school, rather than more development.

If the B’Nai B’Rith proposal passes, officials are considering ways for Swampscott residents to have preference at the facility. Town Administrator Thomas Younger said the maximum for local preference is 70 percent of the units being occupied by residents.

Voters will also consider an amendment to the zoning by-law which would create a planned development district at the vacant former Swampscott Middle School on Greenwood Avenue. The district would allow for construction of 28 units of affordable housing.

The former school was closed in 2007. Voters later approved a zoning change that would allow multi-family construction on the parcel. Five years ago, voters also approved a plan to transform the building into condominiums.

But a group of abutters filed suit in 2014, opposing the revision in a neighborhood of single-family homes. A Massachusetts Land Court judge revoked the multi-family zoning, ruling that reuse of the school did not result in a public purpose. Zoning was reverted back to single-family housing.

If the new zoning change is approved, a Request for Proposals would be issued. Groom Construction, the Salem-based company that originally won approval for condominiums at the site, and has a pending lawsuit against the town, would be eligible to bid. Officials said they hope Groom will submit a bid.

If voters adopt the change, at least 15 percent of the units must be affordable. A second option would allow a builder to contribute to an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which would be used to pay for affordable housing elsewhere in town. That amount would be no less than 20 percent of the total proposed units multiplied by $25,000.

Neighbors said they have been shut out of the process and the proposed structure is out of scale with the neighborhood.

Town Meeting is tonight at 7:15 p.m. at Swampscott High School, 200 Essex St.


Gayla Cawley can be reached at gcawley@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley