Traci Francis, right, and her mother, Rani McLeod, outside their home in Westbrook on March 18. Francis is a senior at South Portland High School who filed a complaint last year with the district after a teacher used a racial slur in a classroom. Francis and McLeod said they are disappointed with the district and feel it should have done more to respond and hold the teacher accountable. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

South Portland High School student Traci Francis was in a sociology class last winter when her teacher used a racial slur in giving an example to the class about whether people are born racist or not.

As the class sat in shock, Francis could feel everyone looking at her, one of the few students of color in the room. “I didn’t know what to do because I’ve always been like, if I was in that situation I would call them out right then and there. I would be super angry,” she said. “But then I was put in that situation and that’s not what happened. I literally froze and I couldn’t believe what happened.”

She asked to go to the school nurse and instead went to the assistant principal’s office and cried. The moment is one the high school senior says will be ingrained in her mind forever. The teacher apologized to the class twice, but Francis said her apologies were insincere and didn’t reflect the gravity of the situation. When she and her mother met with the superintendent they got little information about how the incident would be addressed and had to ask for an email to be sent to the community about what happened.

Earlier this month, Francis and her mother met with the school board with a complaint that the administration’s response was inadequate. They were disappointed to receive a letter thanking her for speaking up but saying nothing further would be done.

“It’s not enough to just thank me for speaking up,” Francis said. “It goes deeper than that and it’s frustrating that that’s what I get for all this work – thank you for speaking up and being a good student but we’re not going to do anything. It’s just frustrating.”

The complaint comes amid broader concerns in South Portland schools about issues related to race, a topic that has raised tensions recently not only within the schools but also between the board and the city’s human rights commission. Schools in Maine and around the country are also facing more visible calls for accountability from students, educators and communities following the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I don’t know that we’re seeing an increase in calls for accountability, but I think there’s more visibility to the calls for accountability that have been called for because students and parents are no longer willing to be ignored,” said Krystal Williams, founder and manager of Providentia Group, a law firm focused on working for rural Mainers and people of color. “So when they’re not being heard or taken seriously or feel like they’re being taken seriously, they’ll press the issue.”

In South Portland, Superintendent Ken Kunin said the district takes all complaints and concerns on issues of race seriously and has increased equity work this year, but acknowledged there is still more to be done. “We aim to be a school district that provides all of our students equity of access to opportunity, and we’ll continue moving down that path and doing the best we can,” Kunin said.

Some families, however, say the district needs to bring more urgency and transparency to racial equity work. They also want to see more opportunities for input and feedback from Black and indigenous people, and people of color, in decisions.

“The messaging I think for all of us is that South Portland schools need to take these issues seriously,” said Baba Ly, who has two children at Skillin Elementary School and who recently started the South Portland BIPOC Parents Coalition to help unite and elevate the voices of families of color. “If people are behaving like that, there are consequences to prevent these events, such as racial profiling and slurs, and make sure they don’t happen in the school system.”

South Portland High School student Traci Francis and her mother, Rani McLeod, say the district was slow to respond after Francis made a complaint over a teacher’s racial slur. She says a letter sent out by the superintendent was vague, and she also felt that the school board dismissed her concerns. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For Francis and her mother, Rani McLeod, the incident last year has led to frustration. The process of getting a response from the district was slow, they said, and when Kunin wrote a letter to the community about it last June, it wasn’t specific enough. In September, Kunin followed up with another letter stating that a teacher used the N-word in class and there should be zero question among faculty and staff that its use is unacceptable.

In a recent interview, Kunin said he could not discuss personnel issues but that the district takes complaints seriously and responded according to school policies.

“We believe it’s incredibly important for all of our staff to have education and awareness raised on unconscious bias and on racial equity, and that’s a high priority for our district,” Kunin said. “That involves all staff members and there’s a tremendous amount of activity going on in all schools and throughout the district.”

At the school board meeting this month, Francis came prepared with all the points she wanted to make, but she and her mother said they felt dismissed with the response from the board and when the teacher, Samantha Matoian, offered an apology for hurting Francis’ feelings. Matoian did not respond to emails or a phone message left at the high school.

“She never apologized for saying the word, that you’re not even supposed to be saying,” said McLeod, who said her older daughter, Toia, also heard Matoian use the word when she was a student. She added, “I don’t care what education they gave her. She obviously doesn’t get it.”

According to the letter Francis and McLeod received from the school board after the meeting, the administration took “several personnel actions” after the complaint, though board Chairman Richard Matthews said he could not discuss the response.

“I feel awful because we don’t view our work on equity and inclusion to be empty promises,” Matthews said. “We are firmly committed to ensuring the actual experiences of students line up with the core values in our policies.”

Traci Francis is a senior at South Portland High School. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The complaint from Francis and McLeod is not the only issue related to race the district has struggled with recently. In February, a guidance counselor was placed on leave after he responded to staff on a group email voicing opposition to the administration’s decision to send out an invitation to Black and brown students on behalf of the group. Kunin said he could not comment on the reason for the guidance counselor’s departure, but he is no longer working at the school.

Other families have also voiced concerns on race-related issues. MK Kissaka, a junior who recently transferred from South Portland to Biddeford, said she was a freshman at South Portland High School when a teacher asked the class, “Is it OK if I say (racial slur)?” during a unit on race and proceeded to say the word several times.

“I walked out of the class because I just felt so uncomfortable and felt like I didn’t belong there,” said Kissaka, who is Black. She said she ultimately ended up dropping the class because she didn’t feel comfortable.

The teacher of the class, Julie York, recalled the incident and said she had been teaching a lesson about the word in media, not realizing the impact it would have.

“I am blessed to have a student like her stand up and show me how much it hurt her; she taught me so much in that moment and my curriculum is better for it,” York said in an email. “Her strong voice helped me prevent that from ever happening again within my classroom.”

Pedro Vazquez, who has three children in the district, said his family had an experience last year where a teacher used the racial slur while reading from the book “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” at Mahoney Middle School. Vazquez said he brought it to the attention of building leaders but “the response has been nothing, really.” He said his child hasn’t wanted to participate in the yearbook staff because it is run by the same teacher.

Kunin and Mahoney Principal Carrie Stilphen said they couldn’t comment on personnel issues in response to questions about the incident described by Vazquez, but said they have followed up when concerns are raised and are engaging with staff on how to talk about race and racism in the classroom.

Schools are limited by law in the amount of information they can provide to the public about employees and their conduct, but Williams, the Providentia attorney, said that lack of information can sometimes be harmful to students who feel they have experienced discrimination or microaggressions.

In general, policies and processes of individual districts don’t always require schools to “close the loop” when a complaint is raised, but Williams said it can go a long way toward making students feel physically and emotionally safe if districts are able to provide some assurances that they have heard and responded to a complaint, even if they can’t get into all the specifics. “This is all about making sure a student feels comfortable and can learn in that environment, and it’s very difficult to learn if you do not feel safe,” she said.

Vazquez also serves as chairman of the South Portland Human Rights Commission, where some members recently alleged that members of the school board are racist during a discussion of Francis’ complaint. The meeting led to a letter from the school board denying the allegation of racism and an invitation in turn from the commission for a joint meeting.

“I think a good beginning is a community forum, which we have asked the school board to participate in,” Vazquez said. “We want to have a community forum with all the stakeholders involved so we can have a dialogue respectful and honest. I’m not ready to write anybody off.”

While the district has always engaged in equity and inclusion work, Kunin said it went “into a higher gear” during the 2018-2019 school year. Still, some things have moved more slowly than is desirable. Last winter the district worked with the Center for Education Equity at the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium to hold focus groups with students, staff and parents. A report on the findings of the focus groups has yet to be released, and Kunin said there have been delays in getting it to the district due to the coronavirus pandemic.

At the same time, he said the district is engaging in other work, including through staff training with the Maine School Management Association and the University of Southern Maine Partnership. At the middle school level, the district is working on extended professional development aimed at teaching the humanities through an equity lens. Library collections are being evaluated to ensure all students are reflected in materials, and faculty and staff at a number of schools are engaged in book groups to increase awareness and understanding.

But a gap also remains between the number of students of color, which is about 25 percent, and the 4 percent to 5 percent of faculty and staff who are people of color. “We certainly hope some of our students today will grow up, go to college and want to come back and work with us as teachers, but we can’t wait for that and that’s a goal for the district to continue to broaden and diversify the workforce,” Kunin said.

At a recent board meeting, Ly, the Skillin parent and BIPOC coalition founder, said he is grateful for the work that has been undertaken so far, but there are also things that disappoint him. The district recently announced it will be using coronavirus relief funds to hire a multicultural and multilingual coordinator, for example, but Ly said he is worried about the long-term sustainability of the position after the federal relief runs out. And he said it has been hard to find information about equity work and get involved.

“As a person of color, as a Black man and as a father of Black children, I just have no idea what is going on and that’s making me ask a lot of questions because I know this work cannot be done effectively without the involvement of everyone,” he said.

Francis, the high school senior, said she thinks there should be more transparency with the community about the training and education for teachers and staff, even though she understands the school is limited in its ability to comment on personnel issues. And she said it shouldn’t be the job of students to have to educate the community on why using a racial slur in class is inappropriate or why it’s important to have a Black Student Union.

“It takes so much energy to try and explain yourself over and over and explain why they should care. … It was just not what I wanted my high school experience to be focused on,” she said. “I love social justice work and I want to continue that, but I feel like I shouldn’t be doing that against my school. It should be with them and that’s not how it felt.”

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