School Committee, joined by DA, discusses social justice programs for students in wake of teen’s death

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The investigation into Mikayla Miller’s death is being handled thoroughly and could take three months or more to finalize, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan told the Hopkinton School Committee at Thursday’s meeting.

“We are committed to determining how Mikayla’s very promising life came to an end,” she said.

“We owe it to Mikayla, her family and her community” to do “a thorough and active investigation” and to be transparent about the results, she said. “At some point, I want to come to the community and say, ‘Here are the answers.’ ”

Miller’s body was found April 18 reportedly hanging from a tree on a trail in the woods off West Main Street. Since then, questions have been raised about the Hopkinton High School sophomore’s manner of death, with some of the teen’s family members and supporters openly questioning whether the death was “murder.’’

Some also have suggested Miller was targeted because she was Black and gay.

Investigators have interviewed “dozens” of individuals in connection with the investigation, Ryan said.

She said they are examining information contained on electronic devices of a number of individuals. Items and samples have also been submitted to the crime lab for analysis, she said. This all takes time, she said.

She encouraged anyone with information to reach out to her office. “We are happy to talk to anyone who has any information,” she said.

“I know that in the last few weeks, this community is really struggling over the loss of this beautiful child,” she said. “We know Mikayla was a very valuable member of the school community. Losing a child under any circumstances is wrong. It’s not the natural order to be burying our children.”

Ryan and Antonia Thompson, director of racial justice initiatives in the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, said their office offers support for school systems and students to deal with issues of social justice.

“The community is hurting,” Thompson said. “There really is a need for some intervention.” She said the schools were providing support, but the after-effects of Miller’s death will reverberate for some time.

Ryan’s office sponsors roundtable discussions with students. These programs run an hour in four-week blocks for students to discuss issues related to social justices.

“These conversations have to happen,” Thompson said. “These are very important conversations we have to have and sometimes they’re difficult conversations to have.”

The program aims to “make sure that kids are being heard,” she said. The goal is “to help kids become self-advocates and to empower them” to make changes they feel are important to improving social conditions.

The office also offers programs in restorative justice and restorative practices. Restorative justice, she said, aims to keep students “in school and on track” and out of the criminal justice system.

Restorative practices explore bigger-picture issues, such as how to deal with conflict and what kind of school climate a community should have.

“It’s part of that real commitment we have to empower young people,” Ryan said. “We heard how difficult they find it to speak up, especially if they felt they were alone, or they were not sure what the response would be” from peers and adults, she said.

Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh said the district has been focused a lot on diversity, equity, inclusion, social justice and anti-bias and anti-racism work.

“We’ve done a lot of good work,” she said.

She supported bringing some of those issues to students through programs such as the roundtable discussions. “Now it’s time [for these issues] to be handed in some capacity to the students,” she said.

Diversity varies from community to community, Thompson said, but in the end the specific numbers don’t matter.

“What matters is that we are inclusive and we are open and we’re willing to have dialogues with all types of people,” she said.

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