A former Kennebunk High School teacher said she felt fearful for her family’s safety after a student threatened to burn her house down, was intimidated by another student who “harassed” her with the Confederate flag and was not supported by RSU 21 administration through the ordeal.
Details of history teacher Rosa Slack’s three years at Kennebunk High School are revealed in a race-based and whistleblower’s retaliation complaint filed with the Maine Human Rights Commission against RSU 21 and the school.
“KHS’s administration not only failed to investigate appropriately, but actively covered up the extent of the harassment,” Slack said in the complaint, where she wrote that she became the school’s second black faculty member when she joined the staff in fall 2015.
In accepting the teaching role at Kennebunk High School, Slack said she left a position as a social studies teacher at Old Orchard Beach, where she said she “thrived” and was “happy.” An educator for 20 years, Slack said she has worked as a social studies teacher, an assistant principal, and a director of academic affairs. She and her family moved to Kennebunk, and she took the job at the high school, to buy a home that “was perfect” for her son who has physical and developmental disabilities.
She was excited about the move to Kennebunk High School, but said that “excitement soon turned to apprehension.”
She said that fall, a student in one of her classes told an education technician that he felt like burning Slack’s house down. Slack immediately reported the threat to the school’s administration and filed a police report. She was told that the school would perform a “risk assessment” on the student, but that he would not be suspended unless he refused the assessment. Slack said “to my knowledge, KHS never independently investigated the threat or took any action other than to remove him from my class.” Following a trial in June 2017, the juvenile student was found guilty, according to Slack’s complaint.
In March 2016, on America Day during Spirit Week at Kennebunk High School, a friend of the student who threatened to burn Slack’s house down walked into her World History Common Core class with a large Confederate flag draped over his back, she said, the word “Redneck” written down the center of the flag, as another student videotaped her reaction.
“The Confederate flag is a hate symbol,” Slack wrote in her complaint. “My father, who grew up outside of Charleston, South Carolina, told me that ‘when you saw the flag, you knew it meant, [N-word], stay in your place or we will put you there.’”
Slack said she asked the student to remove the flag and she took it to the administrative office, later emailing administrators about what happened. Slack said she told administrators that she had heard from a black freshman student who told her “those same boys paraded that same flag in front of me last year during spirit week.” The student also told Slack that the encounter was videotaped and shared on Snapchat.
Slack said she also learned through this student, identified as “Jane Doe” in the complaint, that during her eighth-grade year at the Middle School of the Kennebunks, a student told Jane Doe he wanted to “kill all the black people in school.” To the student and her parent’s knowledge, the only discipline the student received was being transferred to a different class, Slack wrote. After other incidents of race-based harassment, Slack said Jane Doe and her family moved out of the Kennebunk area, according to the complaint.
Slack formed a Civil Rights Team at Kennebunk High School the next fall, which her complaint described as “a school-based group of students that works with faculty advisors to identify and address issues of bias in their school communities.” She was one of two faculty advisers and said the group wanted to send a letter in support of Casco Bay High School students following a racial incident, but was told by Principal Sue Cressey that RSU 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes “decided we could not send the letter.”
Slack said she requested anti-bias training and banning the Confederate flag from school grounds, but that administrators were unreceptive.
Slack also detailed an annual evaluation process in which she said she was retaliated against for speaking out. For the first time in her 20-year career, Slack said she was assessed as “below proficient” in several categories, questioning whether she “is a team player” and citing “an incident during the 2015-16 school year.” Slack said she received a handful of amended evaluations, which she said, “contained falsehoods and unfair characterizations.”
The final evaluation assessed Slack as “less than proficient in the categories for ‘Integrity and ethical conduct,’ ‘Decision making,’ and ‘Compliance with school and district regulations,’” she said.
“The protracted, humiliating summative evaluation process affected me deeply, bringing back the pain of being threatened by [a student], being harassed with the Confederate flag by his friends, failing to receive support from RSU 21 following both incidents, learning that RSU 21 had allowed pervasive harassment of a black student to persist at MSK and KHS [where I planned to send my own children when they were old enough], and of being attacked for ‘wasting student time’ and accused of being unprofessional for trying to help fulfill the mission of the KHS Civil Rights Team,” Slack said.
She felt fearful for her job and future employment at Kennebunk High School.
“It was clear to me that the superintendent intended to send a message that she did not approve of my opposition to race discrimination, that my future at KHS was in danger because of it, and that RSU 21 was not going to change its ways to protect its black students and faculty from harassment,” her complaint states.
Slack left her position with the district at the end of the 2018 school year and her family has moved to Portland.
Hawes, the RSU 21 superintendent, said in a statement Monday afternoon that the district is being unfairly cast in a negative light and the district “takes all complaints seriously, investigates them, and takes prompt effective remedial action.”
“Discrimination, harassment and bullying are issues that all school districts struggle with and RSU 21 is no exception,” Hawes said, adding that the district was the first in the state to institute the “Say Something Anonymous Reporting System,” a way for members of the school community to report bullying and harassment. She also said she and Assistant Superintendent Phil Potenziano have been arranging an “equity audit” to understand where to target anti-bias training and how to provide the most effective training possible.
“I signed an agreement with the Maine Human Rights Commission to keep information exchanged during its investigation of Rosa Slack’s complaint confidential as did Ms. Slack. I believe I am bound by that agreement and I do not think it is appropriate to try this case in the media,” she said. “RSU 21 takes all complaints seriously, investigates them, and takes prompt effective remedial action. Furthermore, the RSU 21 board did not reject suggestions of anti-bias training. Rather, the primary issue of disagreement between the school board and Ms. Slack related to the demand for a cash payment made by her attorney.”
Slack’s attorney, Max Brooks, of the Johnson, Webbert & Young law firm, said while his client was still working at Kennebunk High School an attempt at a settlement was made that would cover Slack’s legal fees and have the district adopt and pay for an anti-bias training program for the student body that Slack had designed for students in the district. Brooks said the district declined.
The Kennebunk community reacted on social media with shock and outrage to learn of the racially charged incidents and what they believe to be the district’s failure in alerting the public at the time. Community members are discussing ways to facilitate a community discussion and more.
Kennebunk resident Rachel Phipps, a member of the RSU 21 board of directors who said she was speaking solely as a resident, said she learned of the Confederate flag incident a year after it happened and was horrified.
Phipps, who ran for the board on a platform to bring issues of gender equality and racial bias to the forefront and won a seat on the board, said she’s deeply disturbed by the racism that is in the community.
“I was pretty horrified that it hadn’t been brought to the community for a community response. To me, those are the hard conversations that we need to have. That opportunity was not afforded to us because it was not shared,” Phipps said.
Phipps made clear that she is speaking as a community member and social activist, and not as a board member when she says she does not believe the school board is where change is going to happen, and it’s not where it should happen; it needs to happen in the community, she said.
“There are resources out there, and our kids are ready to have these conversations, they are sensitive to these issues,” Phipps said. “I feel like Rosa’s bravery in speaking out has given everyone a second opportunity; a green light to respond appropriately and to be clear about what kind of community we need to have and what we need to do.”