The founder of a new parents group in South Portland said he wants to give parents of children of color a stronger voice in a district that he claims doesn’t take firm enough action on race-related issues.

Baby Ly has created the South Portland BIPOC Parents Coalition to address what he said is “a lack of transparency from the South Portland school district.”

The exact makeup of the group is not yet known. Its only online presence is through a private Facebook group. Ly declined to name other members of the coalition, or even to say how many members it currently has, only saying more than a dozen. He said he is protecting the group since it has only just formed, but imagines in the future it will speak through statements and appearances at school board meetings.

“We want to be a strong voice,” Ly said. “We are here to watch you.”

Ly, who has two children at Skillin Elementary, said the district is failing students of color. He cited as examples the case of Traci Francis, a high school student of color who reported a teacher using a racial slur in class, and the comments regarding a meeting of the school’s Black Student Union by Thomas Bradford, a guidance counselor at the high school. In both cases, Ly said, the district did not take strong enough action against the staff members.

School Superintendent Ken Kunin declined to discuss both examples, citing school board policy and state labor law that forbids him to discuss personnel matters. Regarding Bradford, he confirmed that the counselor was no longer employed by the district, but declined to say whether Bradford left of his own accord or was dismissed. He did say, however, that the district does not ignore complaints about racial insensitivity among staff members.

“We take any issues raised that concern bias very, very seriously,” he said. “We investigate fully, and we take appropriate action.”

The district is expanding its outreach to people of color through a new multilingual and multicultural coordinator, Kunin said. The staff member, he said, specializes in speaking foreign languages and arranging for translators for students and parents for whom English is not their first language. Kunin said this is another sign of the district’s commitment to diversity.

“We all have the same end in mind: providing equity of access to opportunity for all,” he said.

School Board Chairperson Richard Matthews also defended the district’s interests in addressing the needs or complaints of students and parents of color. He cited ongoing training, both for the district’s staff and school board, on diversity, bias, inclusion and sensitivity.

Matthews could not say exactly when the training began, but when asked if the district has begun that training following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis last spring or upon the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, he insisted that the training had been going on for some time before that.

“It didn’t take George Floyd to make the district aware that we’re becoming a more diverse community,” he said.

Ly said the coalition is not targeting any members of the district administration or school board personally. He said he only wants to ensure that BIPOC parents’ voices are being heard.

“When we are complaining one by one, or everybody speaks about their own story, it goes unnoticed,” he said. “All we are trying to do is defend our children.”

Matthews and Kunin both said they welcomed all voices, including the coalition’s, in discussing any matters with the district.

“We’re an open book,” Matthews said. “I encourage them to come forward.”

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