PORTLAND — Advocates, including the mother of a Cape Elizabeth student suspended after leaving a note regarding an alleged rape at her high school, are urging the Portland Board of Education to strengthen its policy on harassment.

Shael Norris is the mother of a Cape Elizabeth High School sophomore Aela Mansmann, who last month posted a note reading “There’s a rapist in our school and you know who it is.” The school district, citing its bullying policy, suspended Mansmann for three days. Mansmann was granted a temporary restraining order against the school by a federal judge, which the Cape Elizabeth school district is appealing.

The issue has made national headlines, and Norris is now warning Portland school officials not to follow Cape Elizabeth’s example.

“I will caution you very, very strongly against taking a stance and not listening to students,” said Norris, the founding executive director of SafeBae, a national youth-powered group that aims to end sexual assault in schools.

Norris and Heidi Randall, the program director for Maine Boys to Men, an organization that works with middle and high school students to create bully-free schools, said harassment and feeling safe in schools is on the mind of many students throughout the state. Randall said the organization’s youth council has listed those as top concerns and will be approaching their school districts to urge action.

“The conversation is coming and you have the opportunity to be the first and be a leader in this area,” Randall said.

Recent Deering High School graduate Sascha VanEtten, an advocate for comprehensive sexual education and support for survivors of sexual violence, asked Portland’s school board Oct. 29 to form a task force to look into adopting stronger policies to ensure students feel safe at school.

At that meeting, the school board amended the department’s harassment policies to define sexual orientation, use gender-neutral terminology and clarify the process for handling complaints and investigations of sexual harassment and discrimination brought forth by staff.

That, however, did not go far enough, VanEtten said.

VanEtten wants students to be better informed of their rights under Title IX, the 1972 law that protects people from discrimination based on sex in school programs and activities and wants to make sure school staff are trained on the law.

Board member Laurie Davis, who chairs the board’s policy committee, acknowledges the district’s harassment policy is “an area that needs substantive work” and agreed to put the topic on the agenda for the board’s next meeting, Thursday, Nov. 14, at 7:30 p.m. in the District Office on Cumberland Avenue.

“If a student doesn’t feel safe at school, it is very difficult to learn. If we want to increase our student achievement, we need to make sure students feel safe,” Davis said.

VanEtten said the board should survey the student body annually about the school climate as it relates to sexual harassment or discrimination and adopt a more “consent-oriented comprehensive sexual education curriculum.”

The survey “will help us keep track of sexual violence in schools and identify discrimination with an anonymous reporting mechanism so we can look for patterns in harassment, assault and discrimination,” said VanEtten, whose senior project was on improving sex education in Portland schools.

Board member Emily Figdor said she doesn’t feel the policy on the books “is as comprehensive as it should be.”

“I really do encourage us to do a deeper dive into this issue,” Figdor said. “It is an issue that has been simmering for some time, and I think it is time to take it on and have student voice at the center of the process.”

Clara Porter, director of Prevention. Action. Change., encouraged the board to use the process it followed to come up with the policy dealing with transgender and gender-expansive students, which was put on the books in November 2017.

“The voice of students, parents and other stakeholders really needs to be part of this,” she said.

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