December 12, 2017
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Racism in Maine schools, or just ‘kids being kids’?

By Beth Brogan, BDN Staff
Updated:

Miki Aube received a call from the principal at Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School last fall, one week after her 7-year-old son started second grade there. A student at the Brunswick school, named after the famous abolitionist author, had called her biracial son the “n-word.”

The school called a meeting with both children, the school’s assistant principal and the other student’s father, who apologized. He told Aube, she recalled, he couldn’t imagine where his child heard the word.

A week later, Aube got another call. A different classmate called her son the same slur. Again, a meeting was scheduled, but this time, the other parent did not appear. Aube said the parent did later apologize in person.

Her son, Aube said, brushed off the repeated slurs. His mother reacted much differently.

“I told him, ‘You need to care. [They’re] calling you that word because [they’re] a racist,’” she said.

Although still just behind Vermont as the whitest state in the nation, Census figures indicate Maine is slowly becoming more diverse. Ethnic populations increased in all 16 counties between 2000 and 2010.

The metropolitan areas of Bangor-Brewer, Lewiston-Auburn and Portland-South Portland saw percentage increases of 6.2, 3.8 and 5.4, respectively, of residents who identify their ethnicity as other than non-Hispanic white during that period.

Against this backdrop, Maine nevertheless struggles on issues of race, a matter recently highlighted by the uproar after Gov. Paul LePage’s comments about drug traffickers coming here from other states and impregnating “young” and “white” girls.

Perceptions are only one problem, however. Policies enacted to address civil rights concerns — including a 2012 state law requiring Maine schools to report to the state Department of Education all incidents of bullying, including racial threats and slurs — have had questionable effect.

A Bangor Daily News review of incidents reported by schools revealed a varying, incomplete accounting of incidents, no consistent methods for either tracking, analyzing or responding to reported incidents, and no penalties for schools that fail to document them.

The lawmaker who sponsored the legislation now laments it hasn’t been followed as intended, and some parents seek more uniform responses, specifically schoolwide efforts designed to reduce the likelihood that children will face bullying.

Several parents interviewed for this story also went further, faulting administrators for too easily dismissing verbal harassment as the actions of “just kids,” and saying this climate is allowing racism to take root in schools. Many were reluctant to speak on the record, fearing repercussions for their children.

Farausi Cherry, a counselor at Windham High School and leader of that school’s civil rights team, said use of derogatory language — even by young children — shouldn’t be dismissed.

“You would think it’s ‘kids being kids,’ or [ask yourself], ‘Is it really an issue?’” said Cherry. “But most of the time with these names, that’s an issue.”

Reporting requirements

Maine’s anti-bullying law requires school administrators to annually report instances of bullying, cyberbullying, hazing or bias-based harassment motivated by race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, gender, or any of a long list of characteristics or perceived characteristics.

The Education Department also developed a model policy for schools and required all Maine schools to develop similar policies to deal with bullying, harassment and sexual harassment.

Schools should report all substantiated instances of bullying and cyberbullying to the state and “delineate the specific nature of the incidents, the consequences and the actions taken.”

Brandon Baldwin, who leads the Civil Rights Team Project for the Maine attorney general’s office, an initiative tasked with reducing bias-based harassment in schools, said racial harassment is the type he hears about the most.

Last year, for example, state officials were informed of an incident in which an African-American elementary school student was invited to an alleged Ku Klux Klan rally by another student.

The state relies on local districts to report such bullying incidents. If administrators knew of no such incidents during the school year, they still must file a report to that effect. Maine Department of Education data provided to the BDN, however, revealed a widely fluctuating response to the law since it was enacted.

During the 2013-14 school year, the first reporting year under the new law, just 87 of Maine’s 620 public schools reported at least one instance of bullying, hazing or harassment to the state, a response that Anne Gabbianelli, director of communications for the Education Department, attributed to a lack of awareness. That number then jumped to 121 schools in 2014-15.

The number of reported incidents varied dramatically from year to year. In 2013-14, schools informed the state of 422 incidents of bullying, hazing and harassment. In 2014-15, the number more than doubled to 1,030.

For bias-based bullying, the category that includes racial harassment incidents, there were 64 incidents in 2013-14, reported by 40 schools. In 2014-15, at least 102 incidents of bias-based harassment were reported by 69 schools.

Gabbianelli said this trend shows the system is working.

“The increase in numbers in 2015 no doubt reflects an awareness of the reporting system, and so it will be interesting to watch for 2016 data coming in from the locals as more and more [school administrative units] recognize their responsibility,” she said in an email.

The law, however, lacks any mechanism for the state to enforce whether administrators file the required annual reports. About 50 Maine schools and school districts had failed to file the reports as of Friday, Jan. 15.

The data released by the state also shed no light on the type of bias involved. The numbers don’t break down the type, such as race, religion or gender, in reported incidents of harassment. The state does not analyze the bullying reports, according to Gabbianelli, and relies on schools to report civil rights violations to local police and the federal government directly.

“All Maine [Department of Education] does is follow the law, and this law asks the state [to] provide policy and that is in place. … We trust locals are reporting,” she said.

Acting Maine Education Commissioner Bill Beardsley, through Gabbianelli, declined to comment for this article.

Mothers, advocates speak out

Interviews with Maine parents and school administrators, however, raise questions about the accuracy of the state data, whether all incidents are being reported or if school officials understand the requirements of the law.

When Catherine Anderson’s son was called the “n-word” in third grade, no one from his school contacted her, the Portland mother said.

“It was my son who told me about it several days later when he thought I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it,” she said in an email. “He was afraid of being ‘that kid’ who has ‘that mom.’ I told him I had to address it.”

In Brunswick, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said administrators addressed both incidents involving Aube’s child appropriately.

“Our administrators acted fairly and followed the discipline code they have to follow,” he said. “The administrators told me they handled it right away. They sat the two parties down and discussed it, face to face, and let people know this won’t be tolerated.”

But Perzanoski said he would not report the incident to the state, because schools are required to report only instances in which disciplinary action results.

Gabbianelli said the law requires schools to report all instances of bullying, regardless of whether disciplinary action is taken.

Perzanoski also said Aube did not file an official complaint, which would have triggered formal investigations into the incidents. Instead, he asked the students’ teacher to develop a “social skills group” to discuss the type of language.

“She’s talking to kids about how tolerant they are and how they shouldn’t be calling each other words that hurt,” he said. “Those types of things will go on.”

Aube said that wasn’t good enough.

“I just want the children to be in trouble for what they did — and not just being removed from the class,” she said. “I want the school to hold an assembly with all the parents and all the students and talk about racism. Racism is a problem here. How is my child going to learn and how is he going to be safe in his classroom when other people are distracted by his skin color?”

‘Go above and beyond’

Janet Mills, Maine’s attorney general, said it’s difficult for the Education Department or her office — which prosecutes violations of the Maine Civil Rights Act — to investigate bullying or harassment if schools fail to report it.

“While the law is a laudable set of principles and guidelines, it is also somewhat aspirational, avoiding enforcement provisions that might have been considered heavy-handed by school boards and administrators at the time it was being considered by the legislature,” Mills said in an email.

Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland, who sponsored Maine’s anti-bullying legislation, said he’s disappointed with the lack of follow-through on the responsibilities outlined in the law.

“We left it up to the department to manage themselves,” said Morrison. “Before we jump the gun and blame them for not caring, we should figure out what … is behind it, and then ask, ‘How can I help you get the tools to succeed?’”

On Friday, Morrison said he will meet with Department of Education officials in the coming weeks to ensure the department is collecting data as the law requires.

Morrison pointed to a handful of schools in southern Maine — Sanford, Saco and Thornton Academy — that he said are “doing a fantastic job” complying with the law.

“Even my own district, South Portland, which struggled a little bit, is doing better,” he said. “There are schools that try hard and schools that really aren’t giving it 100 percent and are hiding behind, ‘Oh, we know better, we’re educators.’ Well, just because you have a degree on your wall doesn’t mean you know how to [approach harassment].”

Baldwin said many people have been taught to ignore differences to avoid the discomfort of discussing discrimination.

“So then when we need to have these important conversations, it’s difficult for us to do so because we don’t have the vocabulary or the experience, and we’re afraid that we’re going to do something wrong,” he said. “That’s where we can help schools.”

Cherry, the counselor in Windham, advocated for a head-on response to harassment in Maine’s schools.

“Me being African-American, I can relate to someone [being harassed],” Cherry said. “If we have to report something, let’s report it. If we have to go above and beyond to make that kid feel safe, let’s do that.”

When students began driving around the Windham High School parking lot with a Confederate flag on their truck in 2012, the school environment grew tense and the administration put an end to it, Cherry said. They then held school “summits” to discuss what had happened.

“What I loved about it was the whole school was involved in the education piece,” Cherry said. “It was, ‘Here’s what we want the message to be: This is offensive to others, and it can’t be done.’”

 


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