The Boston School Committee took the first hour of its meeting on Nov. 18 to apologize for remarks made by its former Chair Michael Loconto that were termed offensive to Asians, but that time of reflection also had a strong message to the community to show more tolerance and not to judge Loconto solely on that one remark.
“My discomfort with your resignation is growing,” said Member Hardin Coleman, who read from a letter he sent Loconto after the incident. “I remain discomforted by the resignation of the Boston community to lead with anger and distrust instead of fairness and reasoning…What leads me to discomfort with our community is that demanding your expulsion from your civic role is in direct contradiction to our principle of restorative justice – a concept that is supported by many of those that called for your expulsion.”
The remarks by Loconto came during a marathon meeting on Oct. 21 that lasted into the wee hours of Oct. 22 and featured a highly-charged debate and vote on changing the admissions criteria for the City’s three exam schools. At around 11:30 p.m. in that online meeting, Loconto was heard mocking the names – apparently – of some Asian parents who wanted to speak against changing the criteria. It was immediately called out, and seemed like he hadn’t realized his microphone was on. He resigned the next day and apologized for his comments.
However, the matter was exacerbated by a report in the Boston Globe showing that members privately texted one another about the comments during the meeting, including telling Loconto how he might be able to explain them away.
But the session at the School Committee meeting on Nov. 18 wasn’t just about bashing the former chair’s comments – which most everyone agrees were not characteristic of his typical conduct. In fact, he seemed to have several allies on the Board who were disappointed that the overall community didn’t give him a second chance before calling for his resignation.
One of the strongest voices in that call was from the Committee’s only Asian American member – that being Member Quoc Tran.
Tran’s comments were quite powerful, and he said he was speaking from the heart and had prayed and meditated on the matter prior to the meeting so he could choose the right words. Many would have expected him – a long-time Civil Rights activist in the Vietnamese community – to condemn and dispatch Loconto to the history books. In fact, though, his words suggested the exact opposite and he said he was “personally resentful” that Loconto was pushed to resign.
Tran said he has been an activist for 30 years and, while he condemns Loconto’s comments on that night, he doesn’t think it should define all of the work he had done for all the BPS communities – including the Asian community.
“Throughout more than 30 years of working in Civil Rights, I’ve learned a few things,” he said. “I used to be a very ardent fighter against anything discriminatory, but now I’m over 60 and looking at everything I’ve fought for and there’s one thing we haven’t been practicing as we should and that’s tolerance and tolerance has been missing since this incident.”
He said that lacking the tolerance to forgive Loconto of his words on that night, and allowing him to move forward on the Committee, will only perpetuate racism and not ease it. He called on the Asian community to teach the City how to be tolerant in the face of terribly hurtful comments.
“To my Asian community, the one thing we grow up with – the first thing instilled in us from the cultures in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia is tolerance and patience,” he said. “Let’s practice that and teacher American people what tolerance is.”
New Chair Alexandra Oliver-Davila said the comments were unacceptable, and she also apologized for her inaction in not condemning them on the spot. She said his words were not okay, but that moment should not define him.
“Words matter and names matter and I appreciate that Mr. Loconto was quick to apologize and resign,” she said. “He recognized his words were hurtful to our Asian community members. However, his lapse of judgement in that moment cannot and should not erase all his years of supporting equitable education access for all Boston students and shouldn’t define his tenure with that challenging moment.”
New Vice Chair Michael O’Neill – a long-time Charlestown resident – apologized for his lack of action, the texts he sent, and on behalf of the entire Committee. He said he hopes the incident can make them all a better board and understand those they serve better.
“I do want to say to our Asian community in particular and our overall BPS community as well…I believe I will commit to leaning into and all of us will commit to leaning into the moment and striving to help build a board that our communities value and feel heard by…I feel we need to lean into the moment and commit together to being a better board. I apologize as a fellow board member…for what happened that evening and the pain it caused our communities.”
Supt. Brenda Cassellius also apologized for the actions, and praised the work of Councilor Ed Flynn for bringing the BPS leaders and the Asian community in his district together to create more of an understanding. She said they plan to have a workshop on Dec. 9 to train with Dr. Ibram Kindi of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. The Committee will also hold a day-long retreat on Dec. 12 to discuss the matter more, and to also talk about logistics for returning students to in-person learning.