Newton North High's student mentorship program latest target of national group
A conservative group based in Virginia has filed another civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against a public school in Massachusetts.
In the complaint dated March 14, Parents Defending Education alleges that a student mentoring program at Newton North High School, called the Dover Legacy Scholars, is discriminatory because it purportedly only serves students of specific racial backgrounds.
The program, in operation since at least 2014, is named for Inez E. Dover, minister of arts at the Myrtle Baptist Church in West Newton, who is celebrated as having worked “to inspire excellence and involvement among children of color in the Newton Public Schools.”
PDE’s complaint attaches a screenshot of a previous description of the program on the Newton North High website. The description invites program participants who are “of Black, African American, or Latinx descent” and maintain at least a B-minus average in classes.
However, as of Monday, no such description was found on the high school’s webpage. The current page mentions staff mentors, academic seminars, minimum academic requirements needed for participation, and that the program is “designed to build community and support each others’ success.”
“It is clear this affinity group is not open to all students who attend Newton North High School,” the group’s complaint alleges, and asks federal education officials to investigate.
In an email to WBUR, Kathleen Smith — Newton's interim superintendent — said she could not comment before completing a review of the Dover Legacy Scholars program.
The latest filing is part of Parents Defending Education’s ongoing legal campaign against school districts around the country against student affinity groups, diversity initiatives and what the group calls “indoctrination in the classroom.”
Much of the latest complaint is copied verbatim from another federal complaint the group filed last October against Newton North High, for its production of a stage show that highlighted stories from Black and Latinx students.
The same legal arguments appear again in PDE’s February complaint against The Calculus Project, an advanced math and mentoring program in Milton Public Schools. That program, its administrators said, is open to students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, though it is aimed at Black and Latinx students.
Elizabeth Simpson, a sixth-grade teacher and vice president of the Newton Teachers Association, says the string of recent complaints engenders a “culture of fear” among her colleagues, especially at high schools.
“Teachers wonder, ‘Is the lesson I teach going to be scrutinized? Am I going to be the next one with my face up on Fox News?’,” Simpson said.
Schools nationwide have come under attack in recent years by politicians and conservatives for everything from lesson plans and assigned reading to Pride flags hanging in classrooms.
Some parents in Newton — a wealthy, majority-white district — say they are alarmed at the degree to which its diversity programming is coming under attack.
To Sana Fadel, a mother of three children in the district, it seems like the local manifestation of a national culture war. She specifically cited the “anti-woke” and “Don’t Say Gay” policies favored by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“We can’t just be complacent and say … ‘We’re in Massachusetts, we’re not Florida,’” Fadel said. “This is happening in our towns.”
Alison Lobron — who has two children in the district, including a daughter at Newton North — says the PDE complaints are “distressing.” “People from outside of Newton are using these programs, that have such good intent, as a way to further their political agenda,” she said.
Lobron added that the complaints “raise doubt and conversation where there doesn’t need to be any.” For example, she noted that “Lost & Found,” the show at the center of PDE’s October complaint, was open to white students to attend, despite the group’s suggestions to the contrary.
The Newton School Committee could discuss this latest filing and other concerns during a hearing planned for Tuesday, Mar. 28 at 6 p.m.