KENNEBUNK — More than 200 people attended a Regional School Unit 21 board meeting Monday night about the district’s handling of racist incidents that led a black teacher to file a race-based retaliation complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission.

Several of those who turned out called for decisive action by the board.

“We are here tonight because a crisis was hidden from members of this board and this community,” said Dan Sayre, criticizing the board’s focus Monday night on creating an action plan and reviewing policies. “That kind of thinking is why we are here. Words of contrition are not enough.

“I do not believe the leadership that generated this crisis will lead us out of this.”

Rosa Slack

The meeting was held to respond to articles in the Portland Press Herald about the human rights complaint former Kennebunk High School social studies teacher Rosa Slack filed over a March 2016 incident in which a student came into her classroom with a Confederate flag draped over his shoulders. He was later suspended, as was another student who videotaped Slack’s reaction and put it on social media. Slack said the district retaliated against her a year later in a job review after she accused it of failing to fully address racist incidents at the school.

After meeting for over three hours Monday night, the board voted unanimously on two items. The first was to have a subcommittee determine the scope of an independent investigation and who would perform it. The board also asked the administration to provide more information about an equity audit of the district, which looks at how school policies such as teacher placement, discipline and Advanced Placement impact the participation and performance students of different racial and socioeconomic groups.

The board asked for reports on both items at its March 4 meeting.

RSU 21 Superintendent Kathryn Hawes addresses school board member Rachel Phipps at Monday’s meeting in Kennebunk as the board considers reports of racist incidents at Kennebunk High School in 2016. In a statement she read at the start of the meeting, Hawes said, “I have learned that the issue is far more pervasive in our community, district and schools than I was aware.” Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Superintendent Katie Hawes opened the meeting by reading a statement acknowledging the turmoil that followed newspaper reports about the situation and asked the board to support an independent investigation of her actions, and those of all parties.

“I have heard from many people who are angry and concerned,” Hawes said. “As a parent of three children attending our schools, I share your concern and agree with your call to action.”

“Through this process, I have learned that the issue is far more pervasive in our community, district and schools than I was aware,” she said.

However, a letter that Hawes sent out to the school community in the wake of the articles set off more criticism, with school board member Rachel Phipps calling it “morally reprehensible” for saying the “primary issue of disagreement” with Slack was over her demand for a “cash payment.”

Slack’s attorney, Max Brooks, said the money would have paid Slack’s attorney fees and funded comprehensive racial bias training at the school by a third party, as part of negotiations to settle potential civil rights claims against the district.

At Monday’s meeting, board member Phipps reiterated her criticism.

“To claim in a letter posted on the website and sent out to every single resident in RSU 21 that Rosa was looking for ‘cash payout’ is doubling down on a racist trope and that is exactly what this (human rights) complaint is about,” she said.

School board member Rachel Phipps speaks at Monday’s meeting in Kennebunk, the first board meeting since stories of racist incidents at Kennebunk High School were published. Phipps reiterated her criticism of the superintendent. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Almost all of the board members, and at least one former board member, said they did not know the details of what happened to Slack.

The 14-member board is composed of members representing the towns in the district: Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel.

Board member Matt Fadiman said he was “embarrassed and ashamed” that he did not ask more questions when they were briefed verbally about the complaint about a year ago.

“If what appears to have happened (did happen,) then shame on me as a parent and as a community member. The signs were there and I just didn’t pay attention. I simply relied on what I was told and that means I didn’t do my job, and that ends now,” he said. “… To Ms. Slack, I don’t know if you are watching, but if so, if things turn out as reported, I am so, so sorry.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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Twitter: noelinmaine

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