Last Thursday afternoon, a small group of high schoolers met in a slightly cramped third-floor classroom at Portland High School. This particular meeting was not unusual. Every day, students are allowed a full period for club meetings, extra help and other independent activity. The school refers to that time affectionately as “Bulldog Block,” after the beloved mascot, since it is the students’ time to take on whatever extra community activities they want.

The circle was entirely composed of students, except for a few faculty members who listened, made suggestions and took notes, and one intern with a coffee cup and clipboard. These were the same people who gather every Thursday during Bulldog Block to discuss the social and political health of the school, as part of the government-mandated Civil Rights Team Project of Maine. We are not affiliated with any other outside project or organization, and we remain proudly student-driven. Nor is our task strictly confined to race or any one political message. Our goal is to keep Portland High socially healthy, free of politically motivated fear, violence or tension: a place where students can come to learn in safety.

This is precisely the reason that I am saddened to learn that our message has become politicized in the wake of the rally around the high school last Friday. I would like to take this opportunity to extend an olive branch to any who misunderstood the meaning of the event, and to clear up a few misconceptions.

The Portland High Civil Rights Team is committed to cultivating dialogue between people of diverse opinions. You might see around the school people wearing gray ribbons. This is the symbol of the ongoing Gray Ribbon Project, encouraging people in a politically divided time, not to view others’ values and ideas in simply black-and-white terms.

The Civil Rights Team meeting in question – held the day before the rally – started like any other, with a discussion of ongoing projects and issues the team wanted to address. Earlier that day, a concerned student had spoken to the principal about the recent racially motivated assault on two district students and possible student-led responses. The principal directed that student to us. Consequently, we agreed to plan a short rally in support of a safe environment for all students of the district.

Maine Republican Party Executive Director Jason Savage is mentioned as having some concern about political bias in our school district. I appreciate his concern and applaud his speaking up; the politicization of schools is a dangerous thing, and one the Civil Rights Team fights to prevent. However, I think I can assuage some of his fears.

This was never intended to be a political event. It was, first and last, meant to show our belief in the absolute, indisputable fact of public schools as a whole: that all students, no matter what, must be safe in their schools. If not the schools, where else is safe? In his criticism, Mr. Savage himself has paid admirable attention to the security of students who might feel uncomfortable. We agreed on a few things to safeguard this:

First, participation would be voluntary. I would say that roughly half of students left rather than participate, for various reasons – mostly having to do with the game that night. Never let it be said that Portland High doesn’t take its athletics seriously.

 Second, the students would make any signs or banners during Bulldog Block, using whatever materials they were willing to volunteer.

Finally, we would end school about 10 minutes early, to allow time for students who catch the bus, have jobs or would otherwise be hampered by circumstances to participate if they wanted to.

During the rally, I noticed that some signs carried by students reflected personal political beliefs. We expected that, but there was no feasible way to stop it short of having an administrator breathing down the students’ necks instead of attending to everyday school business. All in all, however, the rally carried a strong message of unity, not political division.

I’m a student, and I can’t speak for the school or the district. However, I think that the suspicion created by the event is unwarranted. Mr. Savage, or anyone else with questions, is welcome to come to a team meeting every Thursday from 12:30 to 1:10 p.m. in Room 304. We have snacks. (Which, for anyone concerned about taxpayer money, are paid for by my mom.)

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