SOUTH PORTLAND — School board member Hannah Bitjoka has resigned after serving only one year, saying the board failed to address her concerns about bullying and drug use.

School officials said they are disappointed that Bitjoka resigned and pointed to a variety of policies and practices that are in place to address her concerns. City leaders, meanwhile, said they are disheartened that the board’s only Black member felt alienated and compelled to resign.

Bitjoka was elected in November 2021 to represent District 3 for three years.

“After a year on the board, it is evident that, on many issues, mine is a lone voice, and that I am not aligned with the board’s direction and priorities,” Bitjoka said in her resignation letter. “Consequently, I believe that my contribution can be better applied through other avenues.”

Bitjoka said she spoke with many parents and schoolchildren who shared concerns about “bullying and drug use, as well as feelings of being unsafe and unwelcome.”

“I have attempted to communicate (these concerns) to the board, in both private and public conversations,” Bitjoka said. “Sadly, some of these concerns have not been addressed by the board.”


Bitjoka declined Thursday to discuss her reasons for resigning with the Press Herald beyond those outlined in her letter.

In candidate profiles published last year, Bitjoka said she wanted to increase equity in education, promote a history curriculum that reflects different cultures, and better support the emotional health of students and staff. She told Amjambo Africa!, a multilingual publication serving Maine’s immigrant communities, that she grew up in a mixed-race family and wanted to bring diversity to the school board. And she said schools should do more to help students grow into open-minded, independent and financially literate adults.

The City Council voted 5-0 Tuesday to appoint a District 3 resident to fill Bitjoka’s seat until the November 2023 election. The city clerk will advertise for applications and the council will interview candidates and appoint a replacement on Dec. 20. In July, candidates can start filing paperwork to fill the remainder of her term, which ends in December 2024.

Before the council voted, Pedro Vazquez, a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission, said he was disheartened by Bitjoka’s resignation.

“When a Black woman is raised to a position of power, and that power structure alienates her and leaves her in a position that she feels she has no other recourse but to resign, that’s a very bad indicator for our community, for our young people and for our educational system,” Vazquez said.

Councilors Susan Henderson and Jocelyn Leighton said they wanted more information about Bitjoka’s experience on the school board.


“If the problem is that Black women are not listened to and they are constantly erased, (Bitjoka’s resignation) doesn’t say a lot for the management of the school board,” Leighton said. “We need to change huge structures for this not to happen again.”

Elyse Tipton, school board chair, said she believes district leadership should reflect the community and she supported Bitjoka’s election. She said she is disappointed that Bitjoka resigned and tried to persuade her to stay, suggesting ways to bring public attention and action to issues she felt the board was missing.

“We talked extensively about ways we could work together to better lift up her concerns,” Tipton said. Bitjoka raised her concerns in private conversations, not during public board meetings, Tipton said.

Superintendent Tim Matheney delivered a brief presentation during Monday’s board meeting on how the district has addressed bullying, drug use, student safety and mental health.

Matheney said the district requires a “swift, thorough investigation” of each reported bullying or harassment incident and has set up an email address and phone number for students to anonymously report experiences.

The district counters bullying with mediation and restorative practices – using a translator when needed – and positive behavior lessons from social-emotional learning instructors, Matheney said. South Portland High School is involved in SoPo Unite, an all-ages coalition working to create a safe, just and healthy community and prevent youth substance use.


Matheney listed over 40 staff members dedicated to student mental health, including 12 counselors, 12 social workers and five psychologists. The district also works with three outside mental health agencies and just established a Student Mental Health Working Group that will start meeting after Thanksgiving.

“Our educators work hard every day through various initiatives to provide a positive learning environment,” Matheney said in a statement. “We guide students toward good decisions and respectful behavior.”

Matheney said he “very much valued” Bitjoka’s voice on the board and enjoyed working with her on concerns she brought to his attention.

“The voices of all board members are important to our community,” he said.

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