Portland Public Schools issued a statement Tuesday afternoon affirming a commitment to taking allegations of harassment and discrimination seriously, after a former student presented the district with dozens of complaints she had gathered against faculty and staff members.

Angeliha Bou, who graduated from Deering High School in 2017, made a Facebook post over the weekend criticizing the district for ignoring racist incidents when students of color came forward with their experiences.

In subsequent posts on Facebook and Twitter, Bou asked students and alumni who have had racist or discriminatory experiences in Portland schools to share them with her. More than 120 people had retweeted her call for students and alumni to share their stories as of Tuesday and more than 140 people had “liked” it.

She said dozens shared messages, most through Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and by text message. She shared the stories with the district and also posted some of them publicly without names attached.

“It’s amazing the amount of people I’ve reached but also sad to know the system I was a part of still has not changed,” said Bou, now 21 and living in Chicago. “That starts with teachers allowing students to feel safe and knowing what to do in a situation where there’s racism, misogynistic or phobic things said or done in the¬† classroom, in the school environment.”

She said the stories have also exposed that teachers “are enabling these behaviors and teaching impressionable minds to think the same or, for those on the other end of hateful rhetoric, to feel unsafe and to feel voiceless.”

Bou said she had an online meeting Monday with Superintendent Xavier Botana and Deering High School Co-Principals Abdullahi Ahmed and Alyson Dame and is having ongoing conversations with them about how to address the concerns from alumni and students.

She said she would like to see more implicit bias training for teachers and staff and is waiting to hear back about the date for a public meeting where students can talk about their experiences.

“Everything I said was to shine light on cracks in our system and how we can better our community and better serve our youth,” Bou said. “I hope these stories do not fall on deaf ears and nothing is done about it. These students need to feel safe in their own schools.”

In a statement Tuesday, the district encouraged anyone with complaints to contact Botana and provided a list of other resources, such as youth advocacy groups and the Maine Human Rights Commission, where concerns can be reported. Tess Nacelewicz, a spokeswoman for the district, said officials would not be commenting beyond the statement.

“The Portland Public Schools strives to be a school district where all students and staff feel safe and able to work and learn in an environment free from harassment,” the statement said. “Over the past month, in listening to students, we recognize that we¬†continue to have work to do to achieve this vision.”

It goes on to say that, “We will investigate all claims based on the information that we are provided and address the specific instances as appropriate. We also want to take away any lessons from these complaints about our systems, practices and procedures that may be improved, based on what we learn in this process.”

The complaints and concerns gathered by Bou cover a wide range of behaviors and actions. While many are about the district’s high schools, there are also mentions of elementary and middle schools.

The messages point to instances of teachers and coaches using racist words and of male teachers and staff making female students feel uncomfortable with their behavior or remarks. In one, a staff member is accused of telling a female student who reported harassment by a male student that, “It’s not harassment, it’s foreplay.”

Another message written by three women who graduated from schools in the district in 2014 describes coaches giving preferential treatment to white, affluent athletes.

It said a “culture of racism was common for many groupings of white friend circles. The n word was spoken frequently by white students. White students were always held at a higher regard, given more academic priority and attention and feelings of favoritism.”

In another message a female student said she was “singled out almost every class” by a male teacher who would flirt with her or tease her and whom she felt was grading her work differently.

“As the semester wore on I grew to despise that class, avoiding interactions with him when they weren’t necessary,” the message said. “This was simply because he made me feel uncomfortable.”

Bou said she was motivated to make her posts and ask others for their stories because of current events, including the George Floyd protests that have sparked nationwide calls for police accountability and an examination of societal inequities, especially around race.

“It brings up just our system and not only the judicial system but our school system, our education system,” said Bou, whose parents were Cambodian refugees.

In her own experience, she described making a point of wearing long sleeves and sweatpants because she was made to feel uncomfortable by a male teacher who would make comments about her body.

“I did report it,” Bou said. “Along with another student who also had her own disputes with (that teacher). There’s many instances of teachers (acting that way) and nothing being done about it. It’s really a cycle.”

She also described a different teacher’s classroom in which students felt uncomfortable by the teacher’s use of a racist term in the context of a lesson and where students of color felt they were being graded on a different scale than their white peers.

The teacher would make comments about the Black Lives Matter movement that made many students of color feel like she didn’t support them. “It made it harder to learn and just to be there,” Bou said. “You would dread sometimes going to her class. I would.”

Grace Callahan, who also graduated in 2017, said she saw Bou’s post and felt compelled to share her own stories about her time playing on the Deering soccer team. In one instance, Callahan said, a girl on an opposing team made a comment to one of her teammates, a Black student, saying, “Don’t touch her. She has Ebola.”

Callahan said she brought it up to both the team’s coaches and they brushed it off.

“I was just appalled they didn’t do anything at all,” she said.

 

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