Lawrence, MA: City of the Damned

Crime is soaring, schools are failing, government has lost control, and Lawrence, the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts, has never been in worse shape. And here's the really bad news: it's up to controversial Mayor William Lantigua to turn it all around.

McLaughlin says the district doesn’t make the students its priority. “For a long time, they’ve been running the school system for the benefit of certain individuals,” he says. “The problem has been politics, and a corrupt administration. It’s not just been the last few years — it’s been the last 10 years. I hope justice will be served.”

As he speaks, McLaughlin has to crane his neck around the stacks of reports and articles about the impending criminal trial of former superintendent Wilfredo Laboy that are on his desk. In March 2010, Laboy was indicted on eight counts of fraud and embezzlement and one count of illegal possession of alcohol on school property. At the same time, his right-hand man, Mark Rivera, was charged with seven counts of larceny over $250 after he was caught using the school department’s graphic designers and printers to create fliers and other literature for a political campaign.

After several requests, I am allowed to visit the public schools. The five-year-old campus of Lawrence High is a vast, forbidding structure in South Lawrence. The school and its grounds are staffed by 10 uniformed security officers. A police captain, a detective, and two patrolmen are headquartered there as well, but are also responsible for the other 27 schools in the district.

Lawrence is in the top third of Massachusetts towns when it comes to spending per pupil — more than even tony suburbs like Westwood, Sharon, and Cohasset — but success has been elusive. On my tour, I see some students and teachers working hard, but passing one classroom, I notice a kid in the front row reading a newspaper while his classmates are busy trying to solve math problems. And later I am startled to witness a skinny kid in a black sweatshirt confronting a hulking security officer in front of several other adults. “You’re talkin’ shit right now,” the kid says to the officer. “What are you gonna do if I let your blood flow?”

At lunchtime, I join three 16-year-old Dominican girls as they text friends and discuss the rumors that, once the state takes over, the school day will be extended to 4 p.m. It may sound like a good idea, but one of the girls is skeptical. “More kids will drop out,” she says.

 

In mid-January  the fourth attempt to recall Lantigua fails. A large number of signatures Hernandez’s team collected over that first weekend are disqualified by City Attorney Charles Boddy and City Clerk William Maloney. The officials rule that the petition, despite having been previously approved by the city and entirely bilingual on one side, is missing a few lines of Spanish on the other. The city replaces the petition with a thoroughly bilingual one — but refuses to reset the 30 days allowed to collect the signatures. The volunteers have to start all over again, and eventually run out of time.

“Sometimes I feel discouraged, but the news is getting out,” Hernandez says. “As a Christian, I pray for Lantigua. But he’s gotten like a dictator.”

I stop by St. Patrick’s church to speak with Father O’Brien, who stared down Lantigua during the inauguration at the high school. “We’re surrounded by the drug industry,” O’Brien says. He’d been driving past the Beacon projects recently, he continues, when he recognized two teenage boys loitering on a corner. O’Brien waved and the two boys waved back, each with a gun in his hand.

“They pulled them down quickly — they didn’t mean to do that — but we’re this casual about guns now,” O’Brien says. “It’s like the Wild West.”