Administrators at Edward Little High School in Auburn were well aware of the challenges presented by the school’s changing demographics, according to a recent article in The Boston Globe Magazine, and they had taken proactive steps aimed at providing a safe, caring place for all students.

So why were immigrant students of color left feeling unsafe and unheard amid escalating incidents of racism?

There’s a “big disconnect” between how the school is experienced by immigrant students and how it is seen by everyone else, Mike Elsen-Rooney, one of the story’s authors, told Steve Collins of the Lewiston Sun Journal. It feels like “two different schools,” he said.

The Auburn school community is left now to bridge that gap and fulfill its promise of a culture that is open for everyone.

But they are not alone – immigrants and other students of color throughout the state deal with a reality most of the rest of their school and community can’t fully appreciate.

The Edward Little article was produced by two reporters at The Teacher Project, an education fellowship at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The reporters spoke with 14 immigrant students and several parents who said racism at the school “has gone unchecked and festered.” The students spoke about receiving racist taunts and the flagrant use of the n-word in school hallways and on social media.

The conflicts arose as Edward Little changed; since the first Somali immigrants arrived two decades ago, the number of students of color has increase fivefold. They got worse following the 2016 election – immigrant students say others have been emboldened in their racist acts by the anti-immigrant words and actions of President Trump.

And it’s not just Edward Little: A 2017 statewide study found that 41 percent of black students reported being subjected to racist comments at or on the way to school.

Brandon Baldwin, director of the civil rights team project at the state attorney general’s office, says incidents of racism at Maine schools are higher now than at any time in his 12 years on the job. Even though the number of immigrants who have settled here is still relatively small, some white Mainers feel threatened, he told The Teacher Project, by the “increased visibility and voice of people of color and immigrants.”

Schools in Maine are perhaps ill-equipped to deal with the escalating tension amid open racism. A 2012 study found less than 1 percent of Maine’s 18,400 teachers are black, and in a state that’s 95 percent white, there’s not any more diversity among administrators and school board members.

Not only does that make it difficult for them to fully appreciate the experiences of students of color, it may influence their response to bias and hate speech. Scott Annear, principal at Edward Little, told The Teacher Project that when conflicts erupt, it’s tempting for officials to believe race isn’t a factor.

Of course, it’s not just up to schools to address racism. The words and ideas the students are bringing to school are coming from somewhere. They are exposed to them at home, online, and from the highest reaches of power.

But it is the duty of every school to provide a safe and inclusive atmosphere for learning. The Teacher Project’s story shows that Auburn, despite its apparent commitment to inclusion, has fallen short of that promise.

To their credit, Annear and other Auburn school officials seem ready and willing to do the necessary work. To be sure, they’re not the only school district that needs it.


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