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Honor students complain of racial incidents at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts

Updated 8:50 PM ET, Fri May 24, 2019

(CNN) - "No food, no drink, no watermelon." That's what one staffer at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts allegedly told a group of black students on a field trip to the arts institution.

About 30 seventh-grade honor students from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy were visiting the museum last week as a reward for high academic achievement, but left feeling they were the target of harassment and racial insults.

"It's sad that although our students are well behaved and our teachers are well educated, that we are still seen as less than and as criminals," Marvelyne Lamy, a seventh grade English teacher at the school, wrote on Facebook about the visit.

The museum has apologized in an open letter, saying the incident does not reflect "who we are or want to be." It said the employee who greeted the group recalled saying, "no food, no drink and no water bottles," but that there is no way to confirm what was said.

The institution has also concluded an internal investigation and is taking steps to address issues that arose from the incident.

"These young people left the museum feeling disrespected, harassed and targeted because of the color of their skin, and that is unacceptable," museum Director Matthew Teitelbaum said in a statement Friday. "This is a fundamental problem that we will address as an institution, both with immediate steps and long-term commitments. I am deeply saddened that we've taken something away from these students that they will never get back."

Students of color subject to harassment and insults

The Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy is a tuition-free public charter school in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. The school says approximately 99% of the school's 216 students and 94% of staff are people of color.

Lamy says her students were visiting some exhibits to enhance what they had learned in their history class, but that says her students were treated differently than white students who were also visiting the museum. A staffer allegedly made the "no food, no drink, no watermelon" remark during an overview of what to expect in the museum.

After conducting an internal investigation that involved "reviewing extensive video footage, conducting in-depth interviews with staff and visitors, and collaborating with the school," the Boston arts institution said the employee who greeted the group recalled saying "no food, no drink and no water bottles" were allowed in the galleries.

"There is no way to definitively confirm or deny what was said or heard in the galleries," the museum said Friday. "Regardless, the MFA is committed to providing additional training for all frontline staff on how to engage with incoming school groups about policies and guidelines."

Lamy also wrote that her students were followed relentlessly by museum security, accosted for touching displays that white students touched and were subject to several racist statements.

The museum, which houses nearly 500,000 works of art and dates to 1870, said it identified other visitors who made racist comments to the students and have revoked their memberships and banned them from museum grounds. The visitors will also be served with a no-trespass cease-and-desist notification, the museum said.

After reviewing surveillance video, the museum also determined that 13 security guards patrolled the exhibits visited by the students.

"During this time, guards went on and off break and occasionally overlapped as they moved from one area or another. Based on surveillance footage, it is understandable that, because of this movement, the students felt followed. That was not our intention," the museum said.

The museum is working on training all staff

The art museum is now looking to move forward with mandatory training for all staff on unconscious bias, conflict resolution and sexual harassment, and it said it plans to launch an employee survey to solicit feedback about the workplace. Officials at the museum have also remained in contact with leadership at the Davis Leadership Academy.

"We did get a chance to speak with the museum director today with the hopes of having a meeting later to go over the findings of the report," Christopher Coblyn, the school's interim executive director, told CNN on Friday.

Coblyn said members of the school community also got the opportunity to meet with museum officials Thursday to read impact statements and ask questions. More meetings are expected in the future, but he said it has already brought the school community together.

"We prepare our students to face incidences like this. And we prepare them to face it with confidence and their heads held high and to find strength in the community," Coblyn said.


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