Deering High School students, from left, Selam Desta, Glynis O’Meara and Aalliyah Ferreira outside the school on Friday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

As Portland Public Schools continues to probe what’s behind a dramatic enrollment drop at Deering High School, some students are rushing to defend their school while others in the community say the change points to broader concerns about safety and student discipline.

“We did have a bad year,” said Selam Desta, a rising senior at Deering. “We had fights and things like that, but they were taken out of proportion and a lot of students at other schools made the situation seem worse than what actually happened.”

Desta and other students at Deering said rumors about a handful of incidents last fall led to fewer students choosing to enroll.

But some added there is a need to improve discipline and make expectations clearer. Some parents and a school board member also said a larger conversation is needed around discipline and student expectations.

“I think discipline is definitely something that in the fall really needs to be articulated and made clear to students at all three high schools,” said Marnie Morrione, a Deering parent and school board member representing District 5, where Deering is located.

“I do think it needs to be not stricter, but there needs to be more consistency,” said Aalliyah Ferreira, a junior. “I appreciate (Principal Gregg Palmer and Assistant Principal Abdullahi Ahmed) taking students’ voices so seriously, but I think there needs to be more consistency and communication.”

After a handful of fights and a false rumor about a student bringing a gun to school last November, Ferreira and other students said rumors spread that contributed to a large number of incoming freshmen choosing to enroll at Portland High rather than Deering. For the coming year, 127 freshmen are expected to enter Deering compared to a class of 272 at Portland.

In other recent years the freshman enrollment at Deering has been around 220 and Portland around 180.

“People want to see a way to target Deering because we already have the stereotype of more black kids and more economically disadvantaged kids, so we must be getting into trouble all the time,” Desta said.

In 2018-2019, minority students accounted for about 47 percent of the Deering student body. Twenty percent were English language learners and 57 percent were economically disadvantaged, according to school district data.

The school has also seen significant demographic change from 10 years ago, when more than 70 percent of the student body was white, 17 percent were English language learners and 45 percent were economically disadvantaged.

“I think it’s unfair to say there’s a discipline problem because there are different discipline issues for kids just arriving here in the country,” said Marcia Weeks, who coached tennis at Deering for seven years until last year. “It’s a different culture for them and it’s a difficult approach to discipline kids from all different cultures.”

Although Portland High also has a diverse student body, some students said Deering was more of a target for rumors, especially after the back-to-back incidents last fall.

In 2018-2019, Portland’s student body had about 38 percent minority students, 21 percent English language learners and 42 percent economically disadvantaged.

“Perceptions aren’t always necessarily rooted in fact,” said Glynis O’Meara, a senior at Deering. “You can have some badly timed events, and that can change the way people view the schools even though they’re both great schools and both are fantastic places to learn.”

Superintendent Xavier Botana, in addressing the enrollment shift last week, said the drop in numbers at Deering stems in part from the “high profile incidents” that took place last November, and the administration would be working to improve what he called “a climate issue.”

He also said a facilities study that at the time would have changed the use of Deering High School was a factor. The proposal was ultimately rejected in March.

Palmer, Deering’s principal, and Ahmed, the assistant principal, declined requests for interviews and deferred to the superintendent.

Botana asked for a list of questions in advance and declined to be interviewed when that was not made available. In an email, he said the district is working to improve communication and has added text messaging to its parent messenger service.

“I believe the extent to which we are able to put out timely communication about issues is the extent to which we can prevent rumors from happening,” he said.

Ryan Sprague, who graduated from Deering this spring, said the November incidents did lead to rumors that spread, particularly on social media, but they were also indicative of larger problems.

“I just think the lack of discipline perpetuated those incidents because there was no big fundamental solution,” he said.

“The inmates run the asylum,” said Rachelle Cliche, whose daughter also just graduated from Deering. “That is the overall feeling at Deering. Yes, there are people having great experiences and there were great experiences my children had, but in recent years a lot of things have been happening that shouldn’t be happening.”

Nicole Stanasek, whose son just finished his sophomore year at Deering and is not returning this fall, said he would often skip school and she was concerned last year that students had too much freedom to roam the hallways or leave the building.

“I think they’re too scared to discipline students in a way that would have an impact, so they just let things go a lot of the time without even a slap on the wrist,” she said.

Board of Education Chairman Roberto Rodriguez said he has heard concerns about Deering but not more than at any other school. Most feedback he gets about schools is in general positive, he said.

“I don’t feel comfortable acknowledging there is a majority or even a significant number of people that feel that (there’s a problem with climate),” Rodriguez said. “We have almost 7,000 students. That lends itself to a lot of different points of view and perceptions of what we do as a school district. Not all 7,000 are going to be satisfied with how things are done.”

Asked what the district can do to minimize rumors and the spread of false information, Rodriguez said the board is committed to working with the superintendent and staff to identify problems and find solutions, but rumors can never be completely avoided.

“As we continue to process information about the work we’re doing, I hope that’s what grasps the attention of the Portland community and not lopsided and unfounded rumors,” he said.

In a letter to the Portland Press Herald last week, 124 students at Deering High said they feel safe at the school. The total enrollment at the school next year is projected at around 819.

“Every school has incidents in the school year, but because Deering had so many in such a short amount of time, people will automatically link that to the school and say maybe this isn’t a great place,” said Joey Lancia, a senior. “I think that’s inevitable in society.”

For the coming school year, only three students from Deering have requested transfers to other schools in the district.

Parents and students said that, overall, there are many things that factor into where a student chooses to go to school. Where their friends are going, the type of campus they want to be on and specific classes and programs are just a few.

Jean Rank, whose son will be a freshman at Portland next year, said his choice was based on the school’s downtown location and its offerings in the math department.

“I honestly just think Deering got kind of unlucky and had some incidents occur while kids were visiting,” Rank said. “It’s almost like a wave gained momentum and a lot of kids decided to stick together when they chose Portland. I really don’t know what played into it, but I don’t think it’s unsafe at Deering.”


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