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“We can sure as heck do something about what might happen today.”
Heather’s story is finally read into the record
A few hours into the School Committee meeting last night Sue Mailman stood up and said the following:
“All of us, or most of us I should say, have read Bill Shaner's article about the experience of a former student in our schools. To not give mention or discuss how we might handle a similar occurrence today strikes me as continuing the practice of leaders not addressing the uncomfortable.”
She was referring to Heather’s story of course—John Monfredo's "teen-age accuser" takes her power back—which we published on Oct. 27.
Though the story is approaching 20,000 views, Mailman’s comment was the first time a public official brought up the story in an official way—in front of the committee, the mayor, the cameras, and, importantly, incoming committee members Maureen Binienda, Dianna Biancheria and Kathi Roy, all sitting together in the gallery.
Mailman went on to deliver a lengthy and righteous address on the necessity of ensuring what happened to Heather in the 90s wouldn’t happen again.
“It was a very bothersome thing when I learned more about this particular situation. It struck me as amazing how many people in our school system were aware of this issue, actually worked to defend students and teachers, and it makes me shake to stand here and talk about it. And I think it's a failure of our society in general to not deal with things like this.”
It was in service of an order which looked like this:
Mailman also tied in the recently published Boston 25 investigation into similar situations, handled similarly, across the state. From that report:
25 Investigates has uncovered scores of cases of sexual abuse by Massachusetts public school staff over the past decades – and spoken with survivors who say that abuse has left them with lasting emotional scars and years of trauma.
And our team reveals that school districts are fighting to keep basic details about perpetrators secret – even in cases where abuse is documented.
25 Investigates found at least 75 school personnel in Massachusetts have faced criminal charges or lawsuits filed since 2002 accusing them of sexually abusing students.
What happened to Heather didn’t happen in a vacuum.
“We can't do something about what happened 25 years ago but we can sure as heck do something about what might happen today,” Mailman said.
Committee member Jermoh Kamara followed Mailman, calling for increased attention on the issue. She asked for a report on what the system for reporting sexual abuse looks like and whether the district has seen any instances in the past few years.
“It just, it just blows my mind, thinking about and reading all the things I've read in the past couple weeks and months, with regards to what happened 25 years ago and all the missed opportunities I just don't understand. It really blows my imagination that we are in this country, in America and we have, we have a responsibility to protect babies. Babies. I don’t care whatever you think about adults or whatever. I don’t care about your opinion right now. But these are babies. I don't care how old they are, they are babies. And it’s our responsibility to protect our babies.”
Member Tracy O’Connell Novick spoke next, pointedly addressing the district’s Policy ACAB (yes, the ACAB policy) which deals with sexual harassment and assault.
“From everything I’ve seen, the district at the time did everything they were supposed to. And then there are places where our hands get tied when other systems fail us,” Novick said.
She motioned that the policy be sent to the governance subcommittee for review.
“I’m not sure we actually have the most updated Policy ACAB,” she said.
No one else spoke. But that was three official policy directives from School Committee members prompted by the story. And then there was a fourth, briefly discussed afterward.
“I think this is part of the same subject,” Mailman said.
She didn’t fully explain why that is, but it’s clear. The book drive is John Monfredo’s thing. Perhaps it’s different after we ran Heather’s story, but it’s the thing he’s most widely known for. As I put it in that story:
You’re most likely to know (Monfredo) from his annual book drive, graciously promoted as it is in the local press. Over the years, his name has become synonymous with books in the hands of needy children. “Worcester: The City That Reads” is the name of the campaign. His email sign off is “The Most Important 20 Minutes of Your Day....Read With Your Child.” For decades, this has been Monfredo’s personal brand. The “book drive” guy.
Member Molly McCullough attached an amendment to have the district consider a system-wide orientation program for volunteers. And then they moved on.
All of the orders and motions passed unanimously by roll call vote without pushback. The whole 15ish minute moment is worth a watch if you’re invested in the story. I was shaking, personally. (The clip should start at the appropriate time, but if not, the minute mark is 2:24:00.)
It’s hard to overstate how significant this moment was. To finally hear Mailman stand up in a public, official forum and read Heather’s story into the record comes after weeks of near complete silence from most corners of the local political class and press. Some officials made statements of support shortly after it ran, then Neal McNamara at the Patch wrote a good follow-up article. But that’s been it. The Telegram hasn’t touched it, nor has MassLive. It hasn’t come up at the City Council. The silence has been quite loud! People are noticing and they’re asking questions—good ones. Those who know how power works in Worcester may not have been too surprised by the seemingly coordinated silence, but it’s been quite the eye opener for the uninitiated.
Recently, Binienda was made to comment on the story, in which she plays a part, in a Worcester Guardian article about her School Committee win. The whole passage is worth including:
On Thursday, Binienda said she ran a positive campaign despite “negative things” that were thrown at her.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Binienda’s connection to former school committee member John Monfredo was raised. Monfredo, who was accused of sexual abuse of a minor in the 1990s, was seen campaigning for Binienda. No charges were filed against Monfredo and he has maintained his innocence, Worcester Magazine reported.
When asked about her connection to Monfredo, Binienda said she had no comment, other than to say the people who raised the connection had a “very political agenda.”
You’ll notice the Guardian doesn’t mention the story, instead linking to a four-year-old Worcester Magazine article we addressed within it, representing it as the source. Unlike Mailman and Kamara, Binienda didn’t address the matter of child sexual assault, instead attacking the “people who raised” the issue for doing “negative things.”
The Guardian story initially ran with different language regarding the Monfredo connection, then they removed the language for the time, then they updated to the current language, seen above, without telling readers. Though we’ll never know the extent of it, it’s clear there was some scrambling after the fact to arrive at a different characterization of the ordeal and Binienda’s involvement for some unstated reason. The way it appears now skirts around the substance, and that’s putting it generously. While Binienda’s comments are faithfully represented, Heather’s story is reduced to a phrase: “was raised.” They left the passive voice to do so much lifting, and left the reader with an extremely incomplete understanding of the issue.
On Thursday night, Binienda was in the room watching Mailman and Kamara and Novick speak. She was sitting in the gallery next to Dianna Biancheria and Kathi Roy, two other members of a crank contingent about to assume significant power on the School Committee. They were there, allegedly, to speak out against changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day in school documents. They don’t want that. Mayor Joe Petty didn’t allow for comment on the Columbus issue, but also effectively suppressed an effort to get the name changed before the new committee takes power in January.
Like the Columbus issue, It’s likely Binienda, Biancheria and Roy will have a hand in shaping how the School Committee follows through on the sexual assault items prompted by a story Binienda could only call “negative things” born of a “very political agenda.”
It’s worth stating plainly that the “political agenda” here is very clear: Child sex abuse is a horrific crime that should be punished harshly but rarely isand that needs fixing. If that’s our dirty little political agenda, I am comfortable with that. Guilty as charged.
That’s the funny way we throw around “agenda” as an epithet in political discourse—as if the very having of politics is what makes politicians bad—you only play that card if you disagree with the “agenda” at hand.
Like I said, the agenda here is very clear. Binienda dismissed it outright, and in doing so implicitly disagreed with the substance. That’s not a person who should have power over our schools, but here we are! She got more votes in her race than the mayor did in his. Monfredo is safely in her corner. She’s probably going to run for mayor in two years and she’s probably going to win.
Reminder: We’re not done reporting. If you have information on Monfredo or anyone else in the Worcester Public Schools, please send us a line via this contact form. It’s 100 percent confidential. We will be getting back to submissions after Thanksgiving!
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Where Do We Go From Here?
Spent the week chewing on what this post-election moment demands. What’s productive work and what isn’t, and what it is we’re really trying to do here. Seeing some three years of progressive groundswell wash up against a stormwall last Tuesday was depressing, for sure, but also extremely illuminating. We got closer than we ever have but we were still easy to beat. The old guard is the old guard for a reason, and we saw a more complete picture of that reality than we ever have. A lot of people, myself included, were punished in a whole new way for the audacity of caring about this city. It’s easy to take that sort of feeling as cause to throw up our hands and walk away. But it’s just as potent a moment for digging in, developing better strategy, and continuing to build community power for the sake of it.
There’s several sentiments I’ve been returning to as I process what happened Tuesday night. I’ve been thinking a lot about something frequent newsletter contributor Cara Berg Powers told me one time a long time ago. I was venting about a feeling of deep futility over something or other and she said “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” It’s a line from the Pirkei Avot, an ancient Jewish religious text.
Another thought at top of mind currently emerged from various conversations with Etel Haxhiaj over the past few years about a shared frustration with the City Council and the bludgeoning nature of its meetings. The past two years were marked by loss after loss as progressive proposals met a hostile council majority. In honestly asking each other “what are we even doing here?” the just as honest answer was “not a whole lot.” Not in this moment, at least. But each time the progressive minority pushed and failed for something, the act of doing so laid down a template for what a City Council could do, and threw into stark relief the barriers between that vision and the current reality. Each act of trying and failing contributes to a roadmap of sorts that some future coalition with a better chance of victory can look back on. That coalition could be years away. The results last Tuesday reinforce that. We might not live to see it. But even if we don’t make a dent in the present, we leave something useful for the future. Seeing the work throughthis generational lens makes the individual losses sting a lot less and the mere act of trying more gratifying. There’s a certain liberation in understanding you won’t live to see the better world that motivates your work, and if you do it’s just a bonus. It’s the work that matters, not the product of it. The way we think about movement politics generally, especially in recent years, doesn’t account for this. There is no “V For Vendetta” moment. Power is hard won over decades. Understanding the left's current position requires understanding its weakness. The work required to truly undo the pervasive rot is massive in scope, and we will never get anywhere until we learn to live with the understanding that what we do now will not pay off in the near future or even the medium future. It is disrespectful to hope to bank on a swift and immediate undoing.
And then, this morning, a passing line from a recent TrueAnon interview with Norman Finkelstein gave me the lightbulb moment that prompted this whole passage. Talking about his commitment to academic work, Finkelstein said he leans on a German expression his mother taught him: Sitzfleisch. Your “sitting muscles,” as he called it. A BBC article about the term explains it this way: “the stamina to work through a difficult situation and see a project through to the end.”
For the city’s progressive movement in this difficult moment, there are three roads I can see: One, we resign to the apparent futility and dissipate. Two, we bash our heads going for wins in a political reality in which wins are impossible. Or, three, we take the next two years to consciously work on our sitzfleisch—strengthen our “sitting muscles” so that when the next opportunity for real change emerges, we approach it with a stronger foundation, a fuller sense of self and a new clarity of purpose. The choice is clear, I think. Sitzfleisch or bust.
For me and the way I see my role in this whole thing, those three roads look like this: One, I say “ah that was a fun experiment,” give up on the newsletter and find another job. Two, I continue to write about the city the way I have been, and frustratedly repeat myself over and over as the same narratives inevitably play out, especially on the City Council. Three, I consciously shift focus. I take inventory of what’s valuable and what isn’t, and direct my effort toward the best contribution I can make.
The third option is the obvious choice! It will take some time to arrive at what that redirection looks like. I’ll lay it out clearly in due time. I’m going to put together a few surveys for you all: one for the work here in this newsletter and one for Rewind Video Store! More on that soon.
Now that I’m done navel gazing, a few other recent developments to touch on quickly.
In a different week, this would be lead story material: City Manager Eric Batista asks an already powerless Human Rights Commission to be even more powerless.
This Week In Worcester has a good article on the matter, headlined “City Manager Batista Seeks Reduced Police Oversight” and it kicks off with this:
City Manager Eric Batista has denied the Human Rights Commission access to documents related to police misconduct, hate crimes, and payments made to settle allegations of civil rights violations.
Batista said that due to the Department of Justice Investigation, the commission reviewing cases of police misconduct would be redundant.
Part of the HRC’s job is independent oversight of the police department, and indeed the creation of it was very much a compromise with folks who wanted a proper civilian review board. But here Batista is saying that’s not your job. Do not go there.
At the tail end of the City Council meeting Tuesday, Thu Nguyen put Batista on the spot about it (~3:10:000 in). “I would like to have a better understanding of what’s going on here.”
Made to respond in real time and not through a canned statement, Batista didn’t do great. Gunna pluck two lines here from his long and winding response:
Exhibit A: “I know there’s been some questions as to whether I was prohibiting their levels of accountability or limiting their ability to do their work and that is not the case.”
Then, a few beats later, Exhibit B: “I’ve asked them to shift their focus and I’ve denied the request to receive that.”
So are you prohibiting or aren’t you?
Odds and ends
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R.I.P. Worcester’s horsey cops. We had a good run. Time to find some other way to let the police set a pile of money on fire right in front of our eyes.
On Dec. 4 I’m gunna do a feature spot at the Dirty Gerund! Come hang.
Friend of the newsletter Joanne McNeil just put out her first novel! It’s called Wrong Way and it rules. I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy and would highly suggest it!!! Looks like she has a bunch of author copies to hand out if you ask nice. Tell her I sent you!
And if you see Roger “The Dodger” Morris tell him I want my lighter back.
Ok more soon!