KENNEBUNK, Maine — A report released Tuesday concludes there is a mix of sufficient and insufficient evidence related to allegations by a former Kennebunk High School teacher that she experienced race-based harassment and discrimination on the job.
Sanghavi Law Office of Boston submitted the 59-page report after finishing its independent investigation into matters outlined by the teacher in a complaint she filed with the Maine Human Rights Commission in 2018. The school board hired the firm in May.
The complaint detailed separate incidents — one in which a student reportedly threatened to burn down the teacher’s house and another in which a student reportedly “harassed and intimidated” the teacher, who is black, with a Confederate flag while another recorded her response.
Also, in the complaint, the teacher alleged efforts by the high school’s Civil Rights Team to send a letter of support to another school were impeded. The teacher established the team in 2016 and served as one of its advisers. In 2017, the team wrote a letter it wanted to send to Casco Bay High School to show support for the school following a racially motivated incident there. The teacher alleged efforts were made to intervene and impede her work as an adviser by prohibiting the team from sending the letter.
The teacher also alleged a summative evaluation of her job performance during the 2016-2017 academic year was retaliatory in nature.
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During the months-long investigation, the firm conducted interviews, reviewed documents and made findings of facts and determinations as to whether the administration or school board violated its own policies in response to matters detailed in the complaint.
In its report, the team found insufficient evidence that the house-burning threat was based on race. The report noted the threat did not contain race-based words and that a school resource officer who investigated the matter concluded there was nothing racial in the comment. According to the report, the student’s explanation for disliking the teacher did not have to do with race but with the fact she reportedly often “kicked” students out of class.
Regarding the incident with the Confederate flag, the team found sufficient evidence that the teacher had been harassed but not that she had been discriminated against; the team based these findings on how harassment and discrimination are defined in the school district’s policies. The report also concluded the school failed to comply with policy when it did not take the appropriate steps in response to the teacher’s allegations.
The reported stated there was sufficient evidence that the teacher was retaliated against through the evaluation of her job performance in 2016-2017. In the matter of the Civil Rights Team’s letter, though, the report found insufficient evidence of retaliation against the teacher.
The report also stated evidence was insufficient to find one particular individual or entity — the identity of which was redacted — acted unreasonably or failed to comply with the district’s policies on communicating with the school board when it came to the teacher’s complaint and to settlements that her lawyer had proposed. Additionally, the team considered the evidence insufficient to find the school board acted unreasonably or failed to comply with the district’s policies related to the complaint.
In a statement posted at the same time as the report on the district’s website, the RSU 21 school board and administration reiterated its commitment to an investigation process that is “fully and completely independent.”
“To that end, the board is receiving the report at the same time as administration, staff and community stakeholders,” the statement read. “Today — just like you — we will begin with the first step of reading and processing the information contained in the report.”
The board then outlined the steps it intends to take to “create space for listening, reflecting, responding and developing meaningful action.”
The first step is a community listening session to be held in the Kennebunk Elementary School’s gymnasium at 177 Alewive Road at 7 p.m. Oct. 23. The forum will be an opportunity for the public to share its “reactions, takeaways and suggestions” with the school board and administration. Attorney Peter Lowe of Brann & Isaacson will moderate the session. In its statement, the board said it “intends to engage as active listeners” at the event. The forum will be available for streaming online at the district’s website and will be recorded for later viewing.
The session will be followed by “an opportunity for reflection and response” by the board. During this session, the board and administration will consider the public’s feedback and offer its response. The date for this second step has not yet been determined.
The third step outlined in the board’s statement calls for collaborative action steps and planning.
“While the RSU had begun to respond and address the important issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion in many ways, we also recognize that we are just beginning the work we need to do,” the board said. “We cannot — and should not — do this work alone. Together, we will share, listen and reflect. Together, we can begin the process of healing and ensuring that all are welcome here — in and outside the walls of our strong schools and vibrant communities. Not just in theory, but through daily, intentional practice.”