KENNEBUNK — The Regional School Unit 21 School Board heard passionate appeals from the public Wednesday night as it considered how to move forward following the release of a report investigating one teacher’s complaints about the handling of racist incidents and feedback from the community.

The report, which found fault with how Kennebunk High School and Regional School Unit 21 responded to the concerns raised by former teacher Rosa Slack, drew an emotional response Wednesday night from the public, including Slack’s husband, during a community listening session at Kennebunk Elementary School.

“She was harassed,” Geoff Slack said. “She was retaliated against and all she could do was have her lessons typed and go in and teach. Think about that – it wasn’t some incident that happened and you feel bad about it. It was ongoing for years.”

Slack was among about 50 people who attended the meeting and about a dozen who spoke to members of the school board and the interim superintendent criticizing a lack of response to the concerns raised by his wife.

“It seems there was an overarching lack of urgency felt by the school administration, which is simply unacceptable,” Arundel resident Emily Ingwersen said. “I’m not sure why it’s so hard to believe victims and take their reactions seriously.”

Last week the district released the findings of an independent investigation into how the district handled Rosa Slack’s complaints about incidents, including a student’s alleged threat to burn down her house and another incident in which a student came into her classroom with a Confederate flag draped over his shoulders.

The report also talks about Slack being prohibited as the adviser of the school’s Civil Rights Team, from sending a letter to a neighboring school’s team to show support in the wake of an incident of racial harassment.

Slack filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission about the incidents in 2018 and the case was settled in June for $50,000 – most of which went to attorney’s fees – and the district’s agreement to amend her employee evaluation.

The new report, written by a Boston-area law firm, found supervisors at Kennebunk High School did not properly respond to concerns brought up by Slack, who is black.

It also found Slack experienced harassment when the student draped a Confederate flag over his shoulder before entering her class in 2016 but did not find enough evidence she was discriminated against.

That incident was videotaped and shared on social media, and a black student, referred to in the report as Jane Doe, shared it with Slack. The student also told the investigators in the report that a similar incident had happened to her when she was in eighth grade.

“The thing that kept pushing us through was Jane Doe,” Geoff Slack said Wednesday. “Her mother asked for race-based anti-bias training for years and she didn’t get it.”

Today he said his wife, now a teacher in Portland Public Schools, is doing well and her health has improved since leaving RSU 21. He said the district needs to ask itself what can be done differently or what mistakes were made in order to move forward.

Slack also asked the district to remove a letter posted on its website that came in response to a February article in the Maine Sunday Telegram about Slack’s experience. In the letter, from former Superintendent Katie Hawes, she wrote it is “simply not true” that the district does not take seriously incidents of racial bias.

“It is hurtful,” Geoff Slack said. “It is slanderous. It is false and ultimately it is trash.”

Other members of the public Wednesday also criticized the district response documented in the report and asked for an apology to be issued to Slack and Doe.

One resident, Marie Louise St. Onge, asked for the resignation of board member Maureen King after John Costin, husband of board member Rachel Phipps, shared an email from King to his wife discouraging her from pushing for additional information on Rosa Slack’s case.

“You had several members of this board who knew all the information,” Costin said. “You had an administrator who insisted that this board, which is responsible for running the district, should not have that information.”

“Some people were more interested in building and preserving their careers or in building their power and prestige on the board then in having the truth come out,” he said.

Other residents Wednesday said they would like to see the district focus more on a curriculum educating students on discrimination and bias and take a look at policies and procedures to ensure they are adequate and are being understood and followed.

“We can check the boxes saying we followed policies and procedures, but as white people we don’t understand the fear and intimidation associated with these types of incidents,” said Traci Gere, of Kennebunkport.

“We just don’t. I don’t know Ms. Slack personally, but from the report it seemed she was trying to take these incidents and educate the community and it did not seem like she got a positive response to that.”

Chairwoman Kendra Connor said the board will be responding to the feedback at a later date and will then take action steps based on the report and public input.

“We need you to know this is not going to be a quick fix,” Connor said. “This is going to be thoughtful. We’re going to have conversations and going to do our best to do right by the community and the information we read in the report.”

 

 

 

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