Both sides claim victory in settlement of federal suit vs. Wellesley Public Schools

Both sides are publicly celebrating the settlement of a federal lawsuit filed this past fall by a national parents group on behalf of some local families vs. the Wellesley Public Schools system over WPS’s approach to handling racial and bias issues. (Notice of dismissal and settlement document embedded below.)

Parents Defending Education touted the settlement (in which the nonprofit voluntarily dismissed its complaint) and issued a statement dated Monday, Feb. 7 from its President Nicole Neily in which she said: “Parents Defending Education is thrilled that Wellesley Public Schools has agreed to respect both the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of its students going forward. This settlement sends a clear message that racially segregating students in public schools is wrong—and there will be consequences. We have spent decades teaching our kids that racial segregation was and will always be wrong. We will not tolerate a return to segregation in 2022.”

The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal echoed Parents Defending Education’s conclusions, frustrating those at WPS.

The lawsuit zeroed in on the school system’s use of affinity groups to address concerns of students within certain minorities. It also targeted what the parents group called the school system’s “draconian” bias-based reporting procedures, which WPS revised late last year with the guidance of lawyers. Those critical of the procedures said they were too broad and could ensnare students for sharing differing opinions.

Wellesley Public Schools issued a statement on Tuesday in the wake of the settlement. WPS Supt. Dr. David Lussier, accompanied by a lawyer, read it as well as a second statement specific to affinity groups and bias reporting about 30 minutes into the Feb. 8 School Committee meeting (see Wellesley Media recording).

The initial statement reads in part: “Wellesley Public Schools (WPS) is pleased to announce that the lawsuit filed by Parents Defending Education (PDE) has been dismissed and that WPS has unequivocally protected its right to the use of affinity groups sessions in the Wellesley Public Schools and a bias-based reporting procedure. The dismissal is a win for Wellesley Public Schools and every school district engaged in important equity work.”

WPS concluded that: “As a result of this settlement, Wellesley Public Schools remains free to pursue its goal of providing a safe learning environment free of bias and discrimination for all students, faculty, and staff.”

After reading the statements, Lussier added that “Really between both of these statements I think we are affirming our strong belief in these equity tools that at times we need to have the ability to bring together affinity spaces, while open to all certainly, allow us to engage in conversations about issues that affect often marginalized members of our community that are really important for us to be able to lean into. Similarly, we want to be able to have a way for anonymous reporting of bias and discrimination…”

Several School Committee members followed this with informal statements of support. “I’m grateful to all of you for taking a strong stand yet again in support of the equity work that I know we consider so valuable and so foundational to our work with students,” said School Committee member Leda Eizenberg.

The settlement spells out 15 items of agreement between the parties, including that WPS will include a disclaimer in all announcements about affinity-based group sessions that reads: “This event is open to all students regardless of race, color, sex, gender, identity, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation.” The settlement states there is no admission of liability on the part of WPS or the administrators named in the suit.

WPS received criticism locally in March of 2021 after a teacher’s communication leaked in which middle and high school students who identify as white were discouraged from attending an online healing space in the wake of the Atlanta shooting spree. The school system followed up to stress that “No students or staff were turned away from participating in the healing space,” and acknowledged that the teacher’s intent was “imperfectly stated.”

It remains to be seen how much the lawsuit cost the school system financially, but each side is required to cover its own legal and other costs under the settlement. The town’s legal fees have been on the rise, in part due to school-related suits, as addressed at Town Meeting last year.

The school system has been under fire by some for not focusing enough on traditional academic issues. A citizen petition being mulled by the Advisory Committee on Wednesday night and on the warrant for Annual Town Meeting advises the Wellesley Public Schools superintendent and School Committee to prioritize academic excellence “over all other programs, policies, and initiatives with regard to curriculum, text book selection, staffing, and budgeting…with the goal to restore Wellesley High School to its historical top-five ranking…”

So while this lawsuit is now settled, this won’t be the last we hear of this subject in the weeks and months to come.

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