‘A complete failure in leadership’: Community members blast district officials over racism in schools

Ralph Morang | York County Coast Star
Ralph Morang | York County Coast Star
Regional School Unit 21 Superintendent Katie Hawes, right, speaks next to school board chairwoman Emily Kahn during a February meeting.
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A group of high school students also presented school officials their own proposal for an equity action plan.
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KENNEBUNK, Maine — A handful of community members earlier this week continued the call for transparency and accountability from the Regional School Unit 21 board of directors and administrators around the handling of incidents of racial bias in the district, while a group of high school students presented their own proposal for an equity action plan.

Kennebunk resident and former board member Norm Archer told the board during its meeting Monday that mounting legal costs and lack of leadership from the administration have angered the community.

“What troubles me, and I can assure you what angers this community, is that this administration’s response has been a complete failure in leadership,” Archer said, addressing board chair Emily Kahn. “So I ask a simple question, have you, or any of your directors asked whether or not Superintendent (Katie) Hawes should be put on administrative leave pending the outcome of this investigation?”

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Kahn declined comment saying it was “a personnel issue that will not be discussed in public.”

The board has hired a lawyer to guide it through the process of an independent investigation into the district’s response to racism claims against it and Kennebunk High School. In a race-based and whistleblower’s retaliation complaint filed with the Maine Human Rights Commission, former history teacher Rosa Slack, a black woman, detailed one incident in which a student threatened to burn her house down and another incident in which a student walked into her history class with a Confederate flag draped over his back while another student filmed her reaction.

Slack, who has since left her position with the district, said she was not supported by the RSU 21 administration through the ordeal.

Just last week, the district announced instances of hate speech and racial discrimination, this time involving Middle School of the Kennebunks students, in a statement posted on the RSU 21 website. The incidents involved hate speech via social media and on a school bus, the statement said, and, “In each case, the administration has swiftly and thoroughly responded to the issues that have been brought forward.”

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Kennebunk resident John Costin said the lack of information shared with the community around the latest incidents is just more of the same from district administrators.

“This district and these communities are in the middle of a crisis around how bias and harassment incidents are handled and have been handled in the past. I was frankly dumbfounded to see that there were almost no details provided to the community,” Costin said. “What I have been hearing, and this is certainly how I feel, is that one of the ways the previous incidents were mishandled is the community was not informed. The letter that went out last week said there was an incident, but we know nothing more. This flies in the face of what the community has been demanding at this stage of the game.”

The board voted unanimously Monday to approve a draft scope of the independent investigation, setting the wheels in motion for a newly formed subcommittee to begin the process of reviewing and selecting potential investigators. The subcommittee is comprised of board vice-chair Maeghan Lovejoy and Kennebunk resident Arthur Leblanc who are serving as co-chairs on the committee, along with board members Kendra Connor and Sarah Dore, as well as resident Jim Mulligan.

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Attorney Peter Lowe of Brann & Isaacson outlined the scope of the investigation, which will include looking into the allegations of harassment, discrimination and retaliation made in Slack’s MHRC complaint. Lowe, who is advising the board on the process for the investigation, said Slack’s 25-page complaint “is the most detailed one I have seen in my 30 years of practice.”

Assistant Superintendent Phil Potenziano discussed an Intercultural Development Inventory that will be used to assess the cultural competence of the 25 members of the RSU 21 administrative team.

“This is a great tool, it will allow us to get a group picture of where the administrative team is on that continuum, and each member will be able to have an individual coaching session,” he said. “That will give us some baseline data on how to move forward as an administrative team.”

Potenziano, who did his dissertation for his Ph.D. on equity in education, was questioned by Archer on his leadership in this area, given that he was serving as assistant superintendent in the district when the racial incidents Slack described took place.

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“Why should we trust that the people who are in charge, who have a Ph.D. in this, are capable to lead us through what we are experiencing right now? This is a burning question I have,” Archer asked.

Potenziano answered saying, “I don’t think we know everything at this point. The investigation is going to give people further information, so I would ask that you reserve judgement at this point. Your question I think is fair, but I ask you to kind of reflect as well, on what role do I have in this, as a community member?”

Potenziano said his proposal for the IDI assessment, along with all of his work, is research and evidence-based.

“You’ll get one thing from me, I assure you, it’s research and evidence-based. We have to follow the research, it’s necessary. I think we are on the right path,” he said.

KHS students present proposal for equity action plan

A group of over 30 Kennebunk High School students met outside of school last month, creating their own proposal for a district action plan on equity, diversity and inclusion, focusing on increased training and education around racial bias that would create a community of allies at KHS and district-wide. The students outlined their proposal to the board Monday.

“I think in this moment we, as allies, need to remember that this is not our issue to lead, but instead a time to listen to those affected,” junior Elona Bodwell told the board.

The students answered the call from the school board asking for input and ideas, meeting on their own to discuss ideas, and refining their ideas into a detailed six-point proposal.

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“We discussed as students what might help prevent these kinds of incidents in the future, and what had helped us to become welcoming, open-minded allies, and we took these ideas and refined them into this proposal,” said KHS student Nate Durham.

Durham said the group of students worked independently of the school and is not representative of the student body as a whole, but they felt they wanted to have input on this issue.

KHS student Julia Connolly issued an impassioned plea to anyone who has a child in their lives.

“We’ve been working incredibly hard to denounce explicit and implicit discrimination. Systematic racism is embedded in America’s government, our justice system and unfortunately our schools. The extent to which these acts of discrimination of all types infiltrates our consciousness at a young age is incredibly alarming,” she said.

Connolly cited a Harvard University study that found three- and four-year-olds have the same level of racial bias as the adults in their lives.

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“I’m still processing this information myself. I’d like to urge you not to leave this conversation at that door. It’s incredibly difficult to discuss these emotionally potent things with young children. But when we don’t meet vocal ignorance that we see, we are embracing neutrality. To quote Eli Weisel, ‘Neutrality helps the oppressor, but never the victims.’ I urge you, within your homes, please make a conscious effort to denounce these acts every day.”

Four students — Nels Faul, Trea Hsieh-Lewis, Jackie Allaire-MacDonald and Emma Cripps — presented details of the students’ proposal, including six action items designed to increase awareness, collaboration and critical thinking skills. It can be read by visiting RSU21.net and clicking on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Their proposal includes a required ethics/civics class with a focus on current events. Hsieh-Lewis said this is modeled after an elective she took that forced her to think outside her comfort zone, develop critical thinking skills and consider things from a different point of view.

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“I think it’s important in today’s climate where we are often stuck inside our own boxes, in our own homes and bubbles and where we only listen to those we agree with. So I think it’s important to teach students these skills. Often students aren’t aware of how their actions affect others, and hopefully this class could help with this,” Hsieh-Lewis said.

The students want to see seminar-type discussions that are accessible to all students and focus on the social climate in the school and potential issues that exist.

Their proposal also illustrates the need for faculty training so that teachers can facilitate discussions on discrimination and harassment in an effort to create a more inclusive climate.

“We thought it was important to include faculty training in any further discussion because a lot of pressure has been put on the students to lead discussions and they aren’t really equipped to lead discussions on racial bias,” said Cripps.

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Allaire-MacDonald said the proposal also includes efforts to broaden the perspective of students by bringing in guest speakers from minority groups. She said they would like to first bring in a qualified black speaker to address racial discrimination, but would also like to extend it to other minority groups.

The students also felt communication was an important point, asking that a plan be implemented to inform students of incidents, and a clear disciplinary chart be created and enforced.

Lastly, the students propose the creation of committees at the high school and middle school to promote equity and inclusion throughout the schools.

Cripps said these would consist of a student representative from each grade as well as teacher representatives and representatives from any clubs dealing with social issues and school climate. The committees would work in collaboration to address equity issues and organize speakers and assemblies focused on civil rights.

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Board member Matt Fadiman, whose daughter Kayla was a part of the student group, praised the students for their work.

“You’ve created an articulate and actionable plan. This is the student voice of wisdom and action. If we want true change we have to trust the smartest people in the room and right now it’s amazingly evident that that is these students,” Fadiman said.

Hawes said much of the district’s initial work hits upon the same points in the students’ proposal. Potenziano praised the student effort, but urged the community to slow down.

“I ask us to stop and think through the issues first, and then put a plan in place. I ask you to let us do some work, get the data and review the process. I hope the community can understand it will take some time to build a plan,” he said.

 



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