On the day that Portland police charged a 20-year-old man with a hate crime against a group of Portland high school students, the state Republican Party criticized the superintendent of the city’s schools for what it said was the inappropriate politicization of the incident and misuse of class-time through a student-organized rally.
Police arrested Jamie Hoffman on Friday and charged him with interference with constitutional civil rights, two counts of assault and one count criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon, for allegedly accosting a group of black students Jan. 27 as they waited for a bus on Allen Avenue.
Police say Hoffman used racial slurs against four ninth-graders from Casco Bay High School, physically assaulted them and threatened them with a screwdriver.
Portland Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana, whose family fled communist Cuba in the early 1960s, swiftly condemned the alleged attack.
In a Jan. 29 letter that touched on his personal experiences as an immigrant, Botana framed the incident through the context of an executive order President Trump issued that day instituting a temporary travel ban from seven Muslim-majority nations, and earlier promises Trump made to build a wall along the Mexican border.
“More importantly, I want to take this opportunity to encourage all of us to understand the noxious environment in which this deplorable event took place,” Botana wrote in the open letter. “For a long time now, the rhetoric accompanying these actions represents a radical and disturbing departure from the principles on which this country was built and which so many have fought to protect and extend.”
A Human Rights class at Deering High School organized a demonstration this week to show solidarity with the students who were allegedly accosted, and a parallel demonstration spread to Portland High School. The unity rallies were held after school Friday.
Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage objected to Botana’s letter, and said it made the school environment hostile to anyone who did not share Botana’s political views. The party said in a news release that it had received numerous complaints. Later in an interview, Savage said three people employed at Portland schools said they felt politically marginalized by the superintendent’s message.
“The central concern is that taxpayer dollars are being used to politicize public school and some of the teachers and parents and students are feeling this is a hostile environment to be in,” Savage said.
The Republican party vowed to file a Freedom of Access Act request to probe communications between school officials and outside political groups leading up to the student-organized demonstration, but said the records request was not ready Friday night and could not provide a copy.
“We want to find out whether the superintendent has a political agenda he is pushing and whether he is working with other groups,” Savage said.
In an interview, Botana said his statements regarding the Trump policies – which he called a “radical and disturbing departure from the principles on which this country was built” – were statements of fact, not politics, and said the Friday rally was planned by students without help from any outside organizations. He said school administrators decided that a 10-minute early dismissal for all students allowed time for the demonstration without disrupting the school day, and gave students who were not interested in the event a chance not to participate.
Savage, meanwhile, said he believed that class time and school resources were used to make signs and prepare for the rally, but he could not provide any direct evidence.
“They’re doing it during school hours,” Savage said. “They have a captive audience. That’s a very, very gray area for a taxpayer-funded school and teachers to be in.”
Botana said the students in the human rights class likely spent class time preparing for the unity event they organized. Asked whether he believed that was an appropriate, Botana did not waiver.
“In the human rights class? Absolutely,” he said. “I absolutely think it’s an appropriate use of tax dollars when we have our children learning to participate in the democratic process.”
Although the rally occurred after school was dismissed, Savage asserted in his statement – incorrectly – that it occurred during school time.
Mayor Ethan Strimling accused Savage and state Republicans of attempting to construe a statement by the students in the human rights class as the words and feelings of Botana.
The students’ statement was released Thursday by the school in advance of the rally Friday.
“The Human Rights class feels it is necessary to address both the recent attack at Casco Bay High School and the new government policies targeting refugees and immigrants,” the students said.
The Republican Party took issue with the part about “new government policies targeting refugees and immigrants.”
“While Maine GOP applauds the students for coming together to stand up against allegations of racism, it is these sentences that are concerning and seem to echo Mr. Botana’s political agenda,” the party’s release said.
Strimling, in a statement, said Savage should come meet with students to hear first-hand what they think.
“Many of them were on the steps of City Hall yesterday making their feelings quite clear to anyone who is willing to listen,” Strimling said.
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: