PORTLAND — The Portland school district is on the right track to address student allegations of sexual harassment and gender bias, educational experts say.

Portland Public Schools last month announced a plan to address those issues in light of anonymous allegations against 39 employees and 19 former employees that were posted on social media last summer.

Components of the Portland Public Schools plan announced earlier this month include using an ombudsman to arbitrate students’ complaints, providing forums for student discussion of the allegations, more stringent staff training, potentially allowing students to evaluate courses, and improving staff diversity.

The district has also been reviewing its discipline policy and is working to develop an equity policy. A look into curriculum, especially the health curriculum as it relates to sexuality, gender identification and sexual harassment, is also underway.

“In my personal and professional opinion, this is exemplary work,” said Flynn Ross, a member of Equity and Excellence in Maine Schools and chairperson of University of Southern Maine’s Teacher Education Department.

Ross said the district’s response was “courageous” and set an example for other districts.

Portland Public Schools is in a “better position than we were before” the allegations came to light, Superintendent Xavier Botana said, but more improvement is needed.

“We are not where we need to be,” Botana said in an interview with the Forecaster. “We will never be in a position where we are perfect. We will need to continue to understand what is working, what is not working and make a commitment to improving.”

Some of the district’s plans will not be put into place until the next school year because they have budgetary costs, such as the hiring of an ombudsman, or involve union negotiations with the Portland Education Association. 

Ross said the use of an impartial ombudsman to review any complaints that arise “is a really good move so there is someone who confidentially can hear students out.”

The district, Botana said, has used an ombudsman in the past but now will formalize the arrangement.

“The person would be impartial and not part of the organization and help us to understand the concern on a different level,” Botana said.

School-wide discussions of the complaints also has been suggested. Giving students a voice in school improvements is critical, according to the executive director of The Center for School Climate and Learning, a Manchester, New Hampshire-based organization.

“To have kids in a leadership role is the No. 1 catalyst in moving adults in a more positive direction,” said Bill Preble, who founded the organization in 2010 to help schools improve their climates and cultures.

Doing so creates a bottom-up change that, combined with input from staff and parents, gives school leaders the best sense of the culture of a school, Preble said.

“Using the voice of kids, the voice of staff, the voice of leaders and the voice of parents, you start to get a real sense of what’s happening,” he said.

School-wide conversations, according to Ross,  shift the focus from retributive justice centered on punishment to restorative justice.

“The restorative justice model heals the harm that has been done, builds resiliency and helps institutions and individuals grow,” Ross said.

Some student conversations around school climate are already occurring, Botana said.  At a Casco Bay High School Equity Summit last year, students shared their concerns about equity and curriculum with staff members. Those types of conversations need to continue, Botana said.

“Ultimately it is about elevating student voices to make sure we are engaging in a consistent dialogue about what are people’s experiences in the school and using that to continue to get better,” he said.

Staff training on gender equity, implicit bias, microaggression, professional boundaries and expectations, and discrimination and harassment, is part of the plan, Botana said.

“We do a lot of these things, but we are not as systematic about it as we should be,” he said.

Course evaluations could give students an additional outlet to be heard and provide useful feedback for staff, but Botana said he needs to discuss that step with the teachers’ union before instituting it.  He needs to ensure teachers that students’ evaluations would be used not as teacher performance evaluations, but as a tool to improve instruction.

“Over the course of the investigation and conversations, people reflected on the need to have a way to get feedback. It can still be anonymous, but this could lead to action in a proactive way,” he said.

The allegations against the district, some dating back 20 years, were shared anonymously and compiled on Facebook last summer by 2017 Deering High School graduate Angeliha Bou. They allege inappropriate staff interactions with students; biased grading; sexist jokes; discrimination because of race, gender, sexual orientation or nationality; a “white-centric” curriculum; and lack of responsiveness from administrators to complaints raised.

The report on the findings of the district’s investigation into the allegations does not tie specific teachers or staff members to specific complaints because that is considered a private personnel matter under state law.

The anonymity of the students making the complaints, the report said, made “it very difficult to fully investigate the allegations and also impossible to have a dialogue among any of the individuals involved to try to make things right. In spite of efforts to have individuals come forward, few were willing to do so.”

The report did not name the students who did come forward.

It also limited disciplinary options, although two staff members were issued verbal warnings and two resigned after investigatory interviews with Botana. Another individual, who was not being investigated but was included in the allegations, also resigned.

The Maine Department of Education is not taking a position on Portland’s approach to address the issues, said Communications Director Kelli Deveaux.

“The Department of Education believes that the school board and the administration of Portland Public Schools are in the best position to investigate the concerns that were brought to their attention and to develop an appropriate plan for moving forward in the best interest of their community,” she said.

State education officials, she added, are available to the district to “offer resources and technical assistance, should they request.”

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