A guidance counselor at South Portland High School who objected to an email the principal sent advising students and staff about an upcoming meeting of the Black Student Union has been placed on paid administrative leave while the district investigates the incident.

Some teachers and students say the case highlights the importance of the newly formed group and a need for accountability among staff. Administrators, meanwhile, have affirmed their support for the Black Student Union and a commitment to ongoing diversity and inclusion work.

“It’s a little bit shocking because I know so many students who have a close relationship (with him), who are white too and who support the BSU,” said Traci Francis, a senior and one of the organizers of the Black Student Union. “It’s a little mind-blowing to be honest, but it’s also not surprising because I guess you never really know someone and their motives.”

Thomas Bradford, the guidance counselor who was placed on leave following his email to other staff about the Black Student Union last week, said he didn’t mean to offend anyone. He said he supports a Black Student Union at the school but felt it was “inappropriate” for the administration to be sending out a message on behalf of the group inviting Black and brown students to attend.

“My intent simply was to point out that I did not think it was appropriate for the school and the principal to be announcing and promoting an organization that was exclusive to just brown and Black students,” Bradford said. “What I was pointing out was if I were asking to advertise an organization like what I had said, like white Protestant Republicans, they wouldn’t announce that and I wouldn’t expect them to.”

The incident comes as schools around Maine and the nation grapple with racial justice issues. Last fall the superintendent in Scarborough apologized after the curriculum director sent a notice to faculty advising them against advertising “controversial” sayings like Black Lives Matter around Election Day. In November in Cumberland-based SAD 51, school board members said tensions with a resident opposed to racial equity work escalated to the point they felt unsafe.

In South Portland, Francis and other students, including seniors Iman Adem and Fiona Akilo Stawarz, started working on organizing the high school’s first Black Student Union last spring after seeing similar groups in other districts, like Portland Public Schools. The group was approved over the summer and held its first meeting in January.

“Our aim was to create a safe space for Black students that are normally in predominantly white areas that can often be uncomfortable,” said Akilo Stawarz. “Our goal is to create an environment that is freeing for Black students but also to work on events for educating the white people in our environment and also events for the Black community.”

Last week, high school Principal Michele LaForge sent an email to staff and students on behalf of the group advising them of the second meeting. “All Black and Brown South Portland students are invited to join Black Student Union!!” the email states. It goes on to say, “BSU’s goal is to empower black and brown students by holding a safe space for them to gather, celebrate their culture and be themselves.”

Bradford responded to LaForge, as well as school board Chair Richard Matthews and the high school staff, saying when he received the first announcement about a Black Student Union meeting in January that he thought it was a mistake or sent in error. “Obviously not!” he wrote in his email. “I find this so inappropriate and I would like to know if our school board and superintendent approve of this kind of message being sent to staff?”

The email goes on to ask, “Would you send out the following announcement if I asked you to? ‘There will be a meeting of all white Protestant Republicans by holding a safe place for them to gather, celebrate and be themselves.’ Of course you would not!!! So how do you justify sending an announcement only inviting Black and Brown students? This is unbelievable!!”

Faculty advisers to the Black Student Union said they were surprised and hurt by Bradford’s response. “I have been dealing with talking about people with this mindset for a while,” said Jason Jackson, who is Black and works as an in-school suspension restorative practice coordinator at the high school. “I’ve been dealing with a lot of that in general, but it surprised me that this particular individual used the analogy he used. That stood out a lot and it also surprised me that instead of going to the powers that be to voice frustration, he chose to voice it to all of us. That got me a little bit, for sure.”

LaForge and Superintendent Ken Kunin said they acted swiftly to respond to Bradford’s email, with LaForge sending a short note telling Bradford that the student union “was approved at the highest levels,” that she disagreed with his comments both personally and professionally, and that she did not believe it was appropriate to have a debate about the student union via email. Kunin also sent a letter to faculty and staff in which he emphasized support for the Black Student Union and said it was inappropriate to send an email to all staff ridiculing the efforts of student organizers.

“Black Student Unions have experienced wide success in historically predominantly white institutions to support a positive and supportive culture for all students,” Kunin wrote. “This has been true at both the college and high school level for decades. South Portland High School has had a long history of affinity groups, such as the Gender and Sexuality Alliance, to ensure that all can see themselves in the face of their school and all have the opportunity to achieve to their fullest potential.”

He also shared resources including links to news articles documenting the experiences of students of color in Maine and a high school anti-racism resource guide. “I think it made clear where my feelings are and where the district’s feelings are on this from what I wrote and also the kinds of resources I attached,” Kunin said in an interview. “I have to say the response from faculty and staff has been overwhelmingly supportive, which I appreciate, and we’ll follow up appropriately otherwise.”

Bradford did not include students in his response to the original email, but Akilo Stawarz said she found out about it through her position as a school board member. The Black Student Union advisers also discussed it with students at their meeting Friday. Akilo Stawarz and Francis said they both thought there should have been more transparency around letting students know what happened.

“Especially in his position,” Akilo Stawarz said. “I can’t really stop thinking about how many students have been with him and possibly dealt with microaggressions.”

Last year, Francis and her mother, Rani McLeod, also were involved in calling on the district to take a stronger stance in response to a teacher who used a racial slur in a classroom. Francis said there has been a lot of work since then to improve anti-racist policies but gaps remain. “There’s a difference between saying this isn’t tolerated and actually not tolerating it,” Francis said. “It continues to happen and teachers are not being held accountable and that’s really where you have to start. All this work they’re doing it’s not going to have big effects or big change if we’re not starting where the problem is, and a big problem is staff members.”

Bradford, who has worked in schools for over 30 years, said it was not his intent to be racist. “The whole part of this that makes me really sad is that I think for whatever reason, someone is trying to paint me as a villain and a bad person,” he said.

At the same time, the students and staff involved in the student union said there have been many staff who have expressed support for their work. One teacher, Karen Reardon, sent an email to all staff last week voicing support for the Black Student Union and highlighting why it is so important.

“To me, your comments demonstrate exactly why this organization is needed for SPHS students,” Reardon wrote. “You can’t compare the two at all, it is just not the same. The white students are in the majority, they do not have people cross the street just because they see a black teen walking towards them and are afraid – how do you think that makes that young man feel?”

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