A student at Old Orchard Beach High School was asked to remove a photo from social media Tuesday depicting several white students wearing do-rags and flashing “gang signals” after the school deemed it inappropriate.

The Instagram photo, which has been deleted, showed about a dozen students in football uniforms and plain clothes wearing do-rags that a student had brought to school Monday to share with classmates. The students are making signals with their hands and a caption reads, “On that gang (expletive) with the boys.”

Regional School Unit 23 Superintendent and Old Orchard Beach High School Principal John Suttie said the students’ use of the do-rags can be considered cultural appropriation and the school responded by asking that the photo be taken down. Do-rags are close-fitting cloth caps tied around the head and are often associated with Black culture. They are worn for style or to keep one’s hair in place.

The students involved have been apologetic and Suttie said he hopes to use the moment as a learning opportunity.

“I want to be clear that although our students participated unwittingly in an action we now know is inappropriate given the Instagram post, we believe that these behaviors were not racially motivated in any way,” Suttie said in a letter to the community.

The incident comes amid a broader racial reckoning in Maine and the United States and as schools in Maine, where about 88 percent of students are white, are grappling with how to respond to and educate their students about racism.

Issues concerning diversity, equity and inclusion are a primary focus of staff in RSU23 this year, Suttie said in an interview.

“I believe this is an opportunity to really accelerate our learning and for all of us to understand seemingly innocuous actions that … can have other intents. We have to be sensitive to that. The kids are learning that the hard way right now.”

Toward the end of the school day Monday, Suttie said, the staff at the high school noticed several students were wearing do-rags and questioned whether it was something appropriate to be wearing at school. He said he and a school guidance counselor did research Monday afternoon and contacted a professor at the University of Southern Maine to learn more.

On Tuesday, Suttie said he also received an email with concerns about the Instagram post, in which he said students were making “apparent gang signals,” and he immediately talked to the student who made the post. The student was apologetic and removed it, Suttie said.

Rebecca Nisetich, the USM professor the school contacted, said the students’ use of the do-rags can be considered cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity.

“When I was contacted about this I thought, ‘It definitely is cultural appropriation,’ ” said Nisetich, an assistant professor and director of the honors program at USM and a member of the steering committee for the university’s Intercultural and Diversity Advisory Council to the President. “I think you could also describe it as racist mocking because it’s taking an article of clothing that has been attributed typically to a certain type of person, like in this case people of African American heritage, and applying a whole set of assumptions to that as well.”

Nisetich said making comments about gangs and using gang symbols “crosses a line” from trying to honor another person’s culture to denigrating that culture.

“Those are not positive things you would say about a culture you were trying to honor,” she said.

No students are being disciplined as a result of the incident.

“This is a group of really good kids that did something unwittingly very inappropriate,” Suttie said. “They were quick to apologize and own their behavior and we are going to use this as an opportunity to learn. We are all very sorry it occurred, especially the students.”

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