Supervisors at Kennebunk High School did not take appropriate steps to respond to a former teacher’s allegations of discrimination and retaliation, according to an independent investigation by a Boston-area law firm.

The report also found sufficient evidence that Rosa Slack, who is black, experienced harassment when a former student draped a Confederate flag over his shoulder before entering Slack’s class in 2016 but did not find enough evidence that she was discriminated against.

Kennebunk High School  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In addition, the investigation concluded that Slack was retaliated against in a performance review during the 2016-17 school year but not retaliated against in connection with another incident involving her role as an adviser to the school’s civil rights team.

The 59-page report provides a highly detailed account of the events that prompted Slack to file a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission in 2018 and have consumed the district ever since.

However, the report – dated Oct. 12 and prepared by Sanghavi Law Office of Brookline, Massachusetts at the request of the RSU 21 school board – also is heavily redacted in many places and challenging to read.

The report was posted on the RSU 21 website Tuesday, along with a statement from the board of directors.

“While the RSU had begun to respond and address the important issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion in many ways, we also recognize that we are just beginning the work we need to do,” the statement read.

Board Chairwoman Kendra Connor said Thursday that she and other board members have had the report only since Tuesday, and she wants residents to have time to review it, if they choose, before embarking on the next steps.

Slack’s attorney, Max Brooks, did not respond to a message and email from a reporter Thursday.

Rosa Slack Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The board has planned a community listening session for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Kennebunk Elementary School gymnasium. After that, Connor said, the board will plan a formal response and outline any action the district plans to take.

In addition to the board’s statement, its attorney, Peter Lowe of the Lewiston firm Brann & Isaacson, issued a statement about the redactions in the report. In it, he says that under Maine law, “records relating to complaints or charges of misconduct about school employees, and the responses to complaints and charges of misconduct, are confidential personnel information.” Further, he said, performance evaluations and other reports that detail a school employee’s “work or general character,” also are confidential. All references to students are redacted as well under the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

As part of its investigation, Sanghavi Law Office interviewed 31 people, including Slack, then-superintendent Katie Hawes, assistant superintendent Phil Potenziano, several Kennebunk High School administrators and other staff members, students and former students, teachers and former teachers, parents of students and community members. The report does not identify any of the witnesses by name.

The bulk of the report details an incident that is referred to as the “Confederate Flag Incident.” It occurred on March 17, 2016, and involved a student walking into Slack’s class with a flag draped around his neck while another student recorded with a cellphone. Video was later posted on social media. The flag, used by the pro-slavery Confederate States of America during the Civil War, has become a widely used symbol by white supremacist groups.

Slack reported the incident and later said that school officials did not adequately respond. The independent investigation agreed and found evidence to support that Slack was harassed but did not face discrimination.

The report also looked into two other incidents Slack raised. One occurred in December 2015 and involved a student who threatened to burn down Slack’s house. The student was removed from class after the threat but not otherwise disciplined, Slack said. The independent investigation found that there was not enough evidence to suggest that the student’s threat against Slack was motivated by race.

The other incident alleged that an unnamed administrator “directly intervened to impede” Slack’s work as an adviser to the high school’s civil rights team by prohibiting members from sending a letter of support to “victims of a racially motivated hate crime at a nearby high school.”

The investigation found that Slack was not retaliated against for her involvement with the civil rights team but did conclude that she was retaliated against in a performance review for speaking up about the Confederate flag incident.

Since Slack’s complaint became public in February, the school district that encompasses the towns of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel has come under significant scrutiny.

Slack, who left the Kennebunk school and now teaches in Portland, settled with the school district in June for $50,000 – $40,000 of which went to attorney costs. Slack indicated this summer that her motivation was never financial and was focused on getting the district to acknowledge its deficiencies in handling diversity, equity and inclusion.

The school district paid $184,282 for the independent investigation, including $146,960 to Sanghavi Law Office, which specializes in race discrimination, and $37,322 to Brann & Isaacson.

Mary Beth Luce Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Hawes, who was superintendent of schools during the incidents involving Slack, stepped down this summer to take a job at the University of Southern Maine.

RSU 21 then hired a new superintendent, Maryann Perry, who retired from the Marblehead, Massachusetts, school district amid allegations that she violated state law by purposely withholding nearly $600,000 in out-of-district special education tuition bills in 2018 and then paid them using money from the 2019 budget.

Perry resigned less than a month later, after the RSU 21 board acknowledged that it mishandled her hiring. The board chairwoman, MaryBeth Luce, also resigned from the board over the controversy.

Connor, the new board chairwoman, said directors will revisit the hiring process for a new superintendent soon, but Potenziano, the district’s assistant superintendent, will serve as interim at least until the end of the 2019-2020 school year.

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