A new report on equity in South Portland schools has brought to light concerns of parents, staff and students about racist comments by teachers, differential treatment of students and a lack of belonging felt by students of color.

The report released this week is the result of focus groups conducted by the Center for Education Equity at the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium in March 2020. The consortium spoke with a group of parents, eight student groups at South Portland High School and five high school teacher groups. The report also includes recommendations for the district, such as creating an equity task force and developing a strategic plan for equity and diversity.

The report comes as some South Portland parents and students have spoken out about how the district responds to concerns involving race and its approach to racial equity. In March, a high school student and her mother said they were frustrated with the response to their complaint about a teacher’s use of a racial slur in class and inadequate discipline of the teacher.

Superintendent Ken Kunin said he was not surprised by the findings and that since the focus groups were conducted the district has engaged in professional development across all schools, developed anti-racism resources for families and staff and supported forming a Black Student Union at the high school.

“I know there are issues in schools across the country and the way to work on them is to name them and pull together good, thoughtful people to move the work forward, so that’s what we’re doing,” Kunin said.

Fiona Akilo Stawarz, a high school senior who serves on the school board and helped organize the Black Student Union, said the findings reflect many students’ realities. She hopes the district will act on the recommendations in a meaningful way and consider the nuance of the issues raised, looking, for example, at the barriers students of color and of lower socio-economic status face, not just getting into higher level classes but staying enrolled in them.

“I feel like at least for the stuff said by the students, it felt like stuff I already knew was going to be said,” Akilo Stawarz said. “It felt validating to what has been happening the past couple weeks or months. It’s proof of what students have been going through in South Portland.”

The district began working with the consortium in 2019 as part of ongoing equity work and to ensure all students have equal opportunities. Most of the focus groups involved students, who expressed concerns about challenges facing students of color and English learners, the use of a racial slur by teachers and peers and inequity in instruction. Participants were told their identities would remain anonymous and the report names no teachers, students or parents.

One student noted that South Portland High is “self-segregated in a way. It’s really difficult for students of color … our group of students of color are majority first-generation, they’re immigrants or refugees. Language is sometimes a barrier, but it’s also the fact that our school doesn’t push us to be together.”

Another student said a friend was subjected to racial bullying, which made them feel unsafe, and the administration’s response was insufficient.

“When I brought it up to the teachers and the principal and stuff, they’re like, ‘Oh, well just ignore it because it’s not happening to you, it’s not your business,’ ” the student said.

Students also talked about teachers teaching about race in a way that makes Black students feel uncomfortable and said some teachers use racial slurs in class without repercussion.

One student said racial slurs are regularly used in school hallways, but students of color feel powerless to address it.

“There have been many instances where students have come to teachers or people in positions of power and expressed to them that we weren’t comfortable with the ‘N’ word just openly being used in the halls,” the student said. “Whatever you do when you’re by yourself or with your group of friends, we can’t control that, but as long as we’re in an environment where there’s multiple nationalities, I think that it’s not fair for us to go through that.”

The report also includes feedback from LGBTQ+ students who reported bullying and harassment and includes a section on challenges faced by students in the One Class Project, a self-contained special education program. Students in the program said it was difficult to enroll and to get information on their credit progress. They said they were also frustrated with the lack of confidentiality between students and program staff.

The report includes recommendations from both students and the consortium. It says students would like to have a larger role in decision-making and would like to see consequences for the use of racial slurs, as well as education for teachers and activities that unite students.

The consortium’s recommendations include creating a district-wide equity task force to review policies and procedures and support programming that will increase student awareness of equity issues; appointing a high school equity officer to promote equity and diversity in the school; and developing a strategic plan for equity and diversity.

Traci Francis, a senior who has spoken out about her experience with a teacher using a racial slur in class last year, and her mother, Rani McLeod, said the report was validating and they believe the recommendations would help improve school culture.

“It was very scarily accurate,” Francis said. “I think we all kind of knew what was going on in the school but to see it written down – I don’t talk to every Black person in the school but we have pretty similar experiences. It was validating and also pretty scary.”

School board Chair Richard Matthews said he had some concerns after reading the report, but there is also good work going on in the school system that was not mentioned.

“I think we have to be willing to listen and be open to solutions to what other people think might be going on in our school system,” Matthews said. “I do know, however, we have had this conversation before and we have done a tremendous amount of work in the last year and a half on diversity, equity and sensitivity training so I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Both Matthews and Kunin said a district-wide equity steering committee will consider the recommendations in an action plan being developed. Some recommendations, such as forming the committee and professional development, are already underway. Matthews also said the board will work with incoming superintendent Timothy Matheney to determine next steps.

At a school board meeting Wednesday, Daryl Williams, senior education equity specialist for the Center for Education Equity, said the focus groups and report are just the first phase in a process that usually takes years.

Responding to a question about opportunities for additional parent feedback, Williams said insight will be gathered from a broader group of parents, teachers and staff to gain more understanding of issues. “There will be additional information shared, collected, disseminated and recommendations will be provided for a broader scope of work,” he said.

Pedro Vazquez, a parent in the district, said at the meeting that many families felt validated and heard after the report was released.

“I think it’s clear that the ship is headed in the wrong direction,” Vazquez said. “Now it falls on this body to take the helm and to correct the course. That’s what we’re asking for.”

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