Update: The Bangor School Department will order an outside investigation into Bangor High School’s handling of racism that Black students have experienced at the predominantly white school. Read more here.
In Ijeoma Obi’s first gym class in her freshman year at Bangor High School, she saw a white student wearing a Confederate flag belt buckle glaring at her. In her second gym class, he called her the N-word as she was in the middle of a ball game. Obi stepped back in shock, and pretended to be out of the game.
Whenever Obi ran into him after that throughout the school year — in health class, during gym and in the hallway — he pointed to his belt buckle and called her the N-word.
Obi dreaded running into him. She changed her routes to classes, avoiding hallways where she might find him. She sometimes skipped lunch.
“He never left me alone,” she said. “Freshman year was one of the worst years for me because of that kid.”
Obi reported the student four times, she said — twice to a gym teacher, once to a hall monitor and once to someone in the assistant principal’s office.
She was told to simply ignore him, and that it was “just in his nature” to behave that way and wear his Confederate flag belt buckle. The harassment only stopped when the student left Bangor High at the end of Obi’s freshman year.
That’s one of many stories five Black students shared with the Bangor Daily News about their time at the predominantly white Bangor High School, where Black students make up less than 3 percent of the student body. They have regularly heard white students toss around the N-word in hallways, bathrooms and school buses. White students have sometimes directed the slur at them. They’ve heard peers in class defend white supremacy and slavery. And they’ve walked out of class, changed schedules or quit extracurricular activities out of frustration and fear. Close friends and family members verified the details they shared.
Three of the five students graduated from the school earlier this month, ending their high school careers following weeks of protests in Maine and across the country that have drawn attention to racism in many areas of life in the U.S., including education, and prompted institutions to confront their own biases and say how they plan to tackle racial injustice.
“Racism is my high school experience,” said Kosi Ifeji, 15, who will be a junior in the fall. “I know it sounds bad, but it really is.”
The independent probe comes after Superintendent Betsy Webb learned of many of the students’ experiences in a BDN article.
Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb and Paul Butler, the high school principal, said they were unaware of most of the specific incidents the five students described, but said the school department does not tolerate racism or discrimination, even when meant as a joke or based in ignorance and not malice. They cited the school department’s policy that outlines steps for students to report discrimination and harassment, and for administrators to investigate and discipline students.
Black students, however, said teachers and administrators often didn’t follow the policy after they reported discrimination. Both Butler and Webb said the Bangor School Department needs to improve.
“I would be disappointed in a staff member if I found that something like that was reported to them and it didn’t make its way to administration. I would be disappointed and I would have some work to do,” Butler said. “I accept this responsibility fully. We have to commit to accepting the responsibility for students feeling safe and valued.”
“Schools in general, and certainly the Bangor School Department, have been too silent,” Webb said. “We cannot be silent anymore. We have to talk about these things, and we have to listen to our students, our employees and our families.”
Small numbers, little voice
Ibby Konteh, who graduated this month, said friends and teammates have used the N-word in his presence even though he has repeatedly asked them not to. When he was a sophomore, a classmate started calling him the racial slur at lunch, and Konteh switched to a different lunch period to avoid the student.
“And every time I saw him in the hall, he just kept doing the same thing,” Konteh said. “I went to administration but nothing happened, and it just really got to me. I’ve tried my best to stop it, but I don’t know what I can do anymore.”
The spring of his junior year, Konteh discovered the phrase “N word” had been written on his car while parked at school. He tried reporting it, but was told that the school couldn’t take any action. With no cameras in the parking lot, he was told, there was no way to prove it happened on school property.
Being in such a small minority and continually experiencing discrimination has led Black students to believe they don’t belong in Bangor, they said. That’s a common experience for students of color in predominantly white schools, and especially in Maine, where nearly 95 percent of residents are white, said Emma LeBlanc, a researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine who focuses on race in schools.
“School districts where there are lots of kids of color and those kids organize, they might be able to assert their power better or they may become better advocates for themselves,” LeBlanc said. “In a place where you feel like the overwhelming minority, it’s really hard to have that kind of advocacy, and you don’t have a stronger voice within the school district.”
Obi, 18, and sisters Amara and Kosi Ifeji have all had to leave class and quit extracurricular activities that they enjoyed after hearing classmates make offensive comments, whether about white supremacy, slavery or other topics.
The experiences aren’t just a blemish on their time in high school, but the most memorable aspect, they said.
Throughout their time in high school, the three have often broken down, feeling angry or helpless due to a lack of support from peers and administrators.
Based on their high school experience, Obi and Amara Ifeji said they have to leave Maine for things to truly change in their lives. Obi is headed to Columbia University in New York this fall, and Amara to Northeastern University in Boston.
“I love the state of Maine. It has afforded me so many opportunities. But I know to be the person that I want to be, I can’t stay here. It’s just not an option for me,” said Amara, 18, who founded a multicultural student union at Bangor High School to give students of color a platform for sharing their stories with each other. “I can remember all the social injustices that I had to go through, and every racially motivated incident that I had to go through. And it’s quite sad that those are the sentiments that I’m leaving Bangor High School with.”
‘It’s really taken a toll’
Like Obi, Amara Ifeji’s experience with racism at school started a couple weeks into freshman year, during a civics class. While a student teacher conducted a discussion on slavery, he asked students to think about why white supremacy exists, why white people thought they were superior.
“And some white student said, ‘because we are,’ and he just went on to glorify white supremacy,” Amara said. “And I was just 14. I didn’t have any courage back then. I was really timid and shy, so I just started crying, thinking, this is absolutely horrible.”
Kosi Ifeji had a similar experience last fall when a student brought up slavery during an English class discussion on “Of Mice and Men” led by a substitute teacher. The white student said that he didn’t see a problem with it because slaves were given food and shelter.
As the only Black student in class, Kosi said it felt like a personal attack because he was addressing her while defending slavery.
Kosi left the class when the student didn’t stop even after other students intervened. She reported the incident to the administration, which Butler confirmed. But she kept seeing that student in her other classes, and she wasn’t sure he’d received any punishment.
“I felt ostracized from the class, and I thought, am I really that undervalued that nothing is going to be done?” she said.
On their drives home from school, Amara and Kosi Ifeji often screamed out of frustration if they’d had a particularly challenging day dealing with racism, Amara said. The last time she remembers a ride like that was in March, just before school closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is exhausting being a student of color at Bangor High School, so I was so happy to have had these last three months off because I physically can’t deal with the students in my class anymore,” Amara said.
Amara and Kosi’s mother, Ifeoma Ifeji, said she lets her daughters handle racist incidents on their own, and she only intervenes if they ask her to.
But she sees how often they come home crying, and she said it’s heartbreaking. Kosi told her mother one day that the idea of going to school and interacting with students made her physically sick.
“It’s really taken a toll on my kids, but they’re very strong,” she said. “If they weren’t, they would’ve withdrawn from school.”
Typical for Maine schools
Obi said she had to quit playing clarinet, a lifelong hobby, when a student in the band kept insinuating that she liked and supported comedian Bill Cosby, a convicted sex offender, because they were both Black. The same student also made offensive comments about her hair.
“I tried to do as many activities as I could to feel included, but I always felt like the odd one out,” Obi said.
Another Black student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of provoking more harassment at school, said classmates have told her multiple times to “go back where I came from.”
Beyond school, Amara Ifeji’s white classmates have posted racial slurs and made jokes about slavery on social media. When she’s tried to explain why their posts are offensive, they’ve blocked her. When she brought them to an assistant principal, he told her to take matters into her own hands. The school department’s policy on bullying only addresses racial slurs on social media if posts directly mention students, or if students are impersonating peers.
“I wish I could say I was surprised, and that this is an egregious exception to a culture of acceptance and celebration of diversity in Maine schools, but that’s not the case,” LeBlanc, from the ACLU, said. “This is exactly the kind of thing that I’ve seen throughout the state.”
The problem isn’t one of individual students who use racial slurs, LeBlanc said, it’s a school culture that has let the behavior happen.
“You have to have a school culture where such things are not just unacceptable, but fundamentally unimaginable, that if one kid does something bad, it’s not on the handful of kids of color to have to respond,” she said.
Schools can improve the experiences of students of color and their culture generally, LeBlanc said, by changing curriculum to ensure it reflects the experiences of people of color, putting more minorities in positions of power and influence, and appointing a diverse slate of student representatives to voting positions on the school board.
“That sends a different kind of message, both to students of color in terms of the response that they will get from administrators, but also to students who are bringing their racism into school,” she said.
The Bangor School Department is working toward a curriculum that is more inclusive, Webb said. It’s also working on forming an advisory committee with people of color as members.
“In America we have a whitewashed curriculum,” she said. “And we need to make sure that the curriculum includes trainings and education, but it’s also representative of people of color, Black students, brown students, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, and that they see themselves in the curriculum and those who have made contributions to it.”
Last December, Obi and Amara Ifeji shared some of their experiences with discrimination at Bangor High at a joint meeting of the Bangor City Council and School Committee. They asked for changes so their younger sisters and other Black students don’t continue to experience the racism that dominated their time in high school.
Six months later, on Monday, the two recent graduates made the same request of city leaders.
“There hasn’t been a lot of progress,” Obi said. “We’re going to have more people like me who leave their school feeling unhappy because they weren’t treated like everyone else. And no one should have to deal with that ever again, in Bangor schools or or anywhere else.”