A group of Washington County legislators has asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate a complaint that a noose was allegedly left in a Latina teacher’s classroom at Washington Academy, a privately run high school in East Machias.
The incident occurred in March, prior to the campus being shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Judson McBrine, Washington Academy’s head of school. McBrine said Wednesday that he only learned about the incident in mid-July.
According to letters sent to state officials and members of the media by the teacher’s husband, the incident occurred in the first week of March.
“She was completely unaware of its significance, so she did not report it right away, but it was likely seen by a number of students,” the teacher’s husband wrote. “When she saw the noose reported in Deer Isle, ME on June 20, 2020, she asked me what the significance of the noose was and told me she had found one in her classroom. I cannot express the anger that I felt, or the fear that my wife and children felt when I explained it was essentially a racist death threat.”
He added that his wife and two daughters, who have been students at Washington Academy, have been subject to racist, anti-immigrant taunting and comments for the past few years but said the school administration has done “little to nothing” to address the problem.
The noose incident was first publicly reported this week by the weekly Machias Valley News Observer newspaper.
Will Tuell, a state representative in the Legislature and a selectman in East Machias, where the academy is located, said Wednesday that it is “appropriate and necessary” for the attorney general’s office to investigate the alleged noose incident to see if the teacher’s civil rights had been violated.
Tuell, a 1996 Washington Academy graduate, said that since he and four other legislators from Washington County sent their request to Attorney General Aaron Frey on Aug. 14, he has been told the office is investigating the incident.
Marc Malon, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, declined on Wednesday to comment about the complaint. The state attorney general’s office typically does not comment on ongoing investigations.
McBrine said Wednesday that the school is taking the incident and complaints about other racially motivated incidents at the school “very seriously.” Still, he said he does not think there is a “pervasive racist culture” at Washington Academy.
McBrine said the school has hired Sarah Newell, a lawyer with Eaton Peabody in Bangor, to conduct an independent investigation into the alleged noose incident. He said the school also plans to hire a consultant to conduct what he called an “equity audit” to review the school’s policies and practices to ensure that any future similar incidents can be prevented or promptly and adequately addressed.
McBrine said he just heard this week that the state Attorney General’s office had been asked to look into the matter.
The school already has taken steps to help ensure that students and staff are not subjected to racial, ethnic, or other types of harassment, he said. This summer, Assistant Head of School Rich Olivares, who was hired last year, also was tasked with being the school’s director of diversity. The school also was the first in Washington County to create a Gay Straight Transgender Alliance student group, he said.
“We’re going to take whatever necessary actions” to address racism and other forms of discrimination, McBrine said. “We think racial equality is vitally important.”
Tuell said Washington Academy has changed since he graduated 24 years ago, with the school starting an international student program in the early 2000s. It is important that everyone at the school — faculty, staff and students alike — be made to feel welcome and to be treated fairly and equally, he said.
“That’s just not acceptable,” Tuell said of the alleged incident. “We all want the academy to succeed, but this just hurts everybody.”