By Jim Smith
BOSTON — A South Boston woman, Elizabeth Joseph, has filed a civil suit in Suffolk Superior Court, claiming that she was rejected for teaching positions in Boston from 1988 through 1994 because she is white. The case, whose outcome could have national implications, comes on the heels of sweeping changes taking place within the Boston public school system.
Last month, the Boston school committee voted to scrap race-based pupil assignments after a group led by Ann Walsh of Dorchester, Boston’s Children First, filed a suit in federal court challenging the existing policy of assigning and busing students to schools around the city based on the color of their skin.
While Walsh’s suit may be signaling an end to forced school busing and a return to neighborhood schools, Joseph’s action may have an equally significant impact upon the way teachers are hired in the city.
"This isn’t just about me, and it’s not about race," Joseph told the Echo Friday. "It’s about fundamental principles of fairness in hiring. The way I was treated was humiliating." Joseph, who is 57, has state teaching certification in fine arts and music. She has a bachelor’s degree in music from the Boston Conservatory of Music. She has had extensive experience as a classroom teacher and has completed numerous post-graduate courses at Boston University, Mass. College of Art, and the New England School of Art and Design.
"During those six years, they told me there were no openings in art or music, or that other applicants were more suited for the positions," Joseph said. She said she eventually learned that numerous applicants were being hired for vacancies within the school system during that period, many with less education and experience than she had. Court documents indicate that some of those hired did not possess teaching certificates and were granted waivers, while most of those hired were members of racial minority groups.
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In 1993, Joseph field a charge of discrimination with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. In 1995, the Commission, upon appeal, eventually agreed that she had probable cause to claim discrimination, setting the stage for her court action.
Joseph’s lawyer, Paul Nevins of West Roxbury, said that the law is very clear. "In hiring, it’s illegal to discriminate on the basis of race,’ he said. "The school committee’s position is untenable."
Nevins, whose grandparents are from County Galway, said that the late federal judge W. Arthur Garrity, architect of the city’s 1974 school desegregation plan, never authorized the school committee to hire uncertified, unqualified teaching candidates.
While proponents of affirmative action contend that minority students need minority teachers as role models, Nevins said that Garrity clearly rejected that argument in his rulings.
Joseph, who eventually was hired in 1995 and is now teaching kindergarten at the Josiah Quincy School in downtown Boston, said that a qualified, competent teacher is a good role model, regardless of skin color.
She is seeking compensation and punitive damages for the six years she was denied a job within the system. In addition, Nevins will ask the Court to enter a permanent injunction to enjoin the school committee from engaging in race-based hiring, assignments or transfers of Boston public school teachers.
The trial is tentatively scheduled to begin in January.