A report from an independent consulting group has revealed concerns among students and parents at South Portland schools about how students of color and students belonging to other marginalized groups are treated in the district.

The report from The Center for Education Equity at the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium, a consulting group funded by the U.S. Department of Education, summarizes the findings of focus group discussions the center conducted a little more than a year ago with one group of about 11 parents, eight groups of about a dozen students each, and five teacher groups.

According to the report, a number of issues emerged, including:

  • Racial and homophobic comments from teachers
  • Differential treatment of students based on race
  • Lack of gender-neutral language usage
  • Lack of racial diversity in higher-level courses such as advanced placement

The school board reviewed the report April 14.

School Superintendent Ken Kunin said he hoped the report would help generate ideas for the district, and give others, particularly the students, a voice.

Kunin said the report showed a perception that the district did not disclose enough information about how complaints were handled regarding, for example, the use of racial slurs from staff members. He said that while privacy policies and state law often forbid the district from disclosing details of disciplinary measures for staff or students, he understands the need for transparency.

“It is an important perception that students aren’t seeing that we take matters as seriously as we do,” he said.

Pedro Vazquez, a parent in the district and chairperson of the South Portland Human Rights Commission, recently told the Portland Press-Herald that he saw the report as a validation of ongoing concerns from people of color in the district.

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

School Board Chairperson Richard Matthews said this week that critics such as Vazquez are unfairly characterizing the report as proof the district has done nothing to date to address the issue.

“Absolutely, they are wrong,” Matthews said. “We’ve had hard-working teachers. We’ve had hard-working guidance counselors. We have a hard-working administration.”

Matthews noted that it was the board itself, along with Kunin, that called for the study that produced the report in the first place, which he said should indicate the board’s interest in exploring concerns and mapping out a plan of action. Kunin also noted that some of the report’s recommendations include measures the district is already in the process of implementing, such as creating a district-wide equity task force to continue reviewing policies and establishing an “equity officer” at the high school level to promote diversity.

The report also had other suggestions, including conducting periodic community forums with parents and other stakeholders, developing a long-term strategic plan dedicated to equity and diversity in the district and developing family engagement practices that are more inclusive, such as using words such as “parents” instead of “Mom and Dad.”

Kunin and Matthews both said the board and district are working now to turn the report’s recommendations into action. Matthews said it would be up to the board to decide, at future meetings, which recommendations to implement and how.

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