SCARBOROUGH, Maine — The superintendent of Scarborough Public Schools apologized Tuesday afternoon after receiving pushback from students and the community against a school policy that prohibits teachers from using so-called “controversial” phrases, including “Black Lives Matter” during the weeks around the election.
Superintendent Sanford Prince IV said the policy issued on Monday was “not at all intended to be a statement to make any member of the community feel less valued in any way,” recommending updates to school policies on racial justice fronts.
On Monday, Scarborough High School’s curriculum director Monique Culbertson issued a statement to faculty and staff advising them not to use words “that communicate a personal viewpoint” or “have the potential to be controversial or politicized” on school grounds.
The school gave examples that included outright support for presidential candidates and their slogans. “Black Lives Matter,” referring to the social justice movement, was also prohibited. Culbertson did not return inquiries.
After word of the policy circulated on social media Monday night, students protested the move Tuesday morning outside the Scarborough Municipal Building, adjacent to the high school.
Black Lives Matter is widely regarded as a statement opposing police brutality and state-sanctioned violence and injustice against Black people.
A Scarborough Public Schools guideline advises that “educators are responsible for providing appropriate information regarding differing points of view,” on this and other so-called “controversial issues.”
The policy also advised faculty against using the phrase “White Lives Matter.”
“We are collectively acknowledging here that we need to better educate and equip ourselves to have these conversations,” Prince said in a written statement, noting the school district’s partnerships with organizations that specialize in racial equity in professional development.
Prince recommended that the school commission a “full curricular audit by an outside organization” and that the board re-examine its “Controversial Issues” policy.
An email sent to faculty Monday cited educational resource documents on handling “controversial issues” from Teaching Tolerance, an educational resource of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Maine Department of Education. But those organizations have stressed that educators should teach the Black Lives Matter movement.
In a 2017 article instructing educators on the importance of teaching the social justice movement, Teaching Tolerance cited Professor Duchess Harris, who teaches in and chairs the American studies department at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“People like to romanticize the civil rights movement,” Harris was quoted in the Teaching Tolerance article. “They like to say that it was more organized, it was more productive, and that America was more open to it than Black Lives Matter. That is quantitatively not true.”
Harris noted research showing that in the 1960s, the majority of Americans did not approve of even nonviolent tactics, such as passive resistance.
“When the civil rights movement was actually going, it was denounced. Now that we have distance from it, people celebrate it. It was not celebrated in the ’60s at all.”
Roughly 2,900 students attend Scarborough Public Schools, and about 90 percent of those students are white, according to National Center for Education Statistics data.
Christopher Petrella, a former Bates College professor who is writing a book about the history of white supremacy in New England, tweeted at the school Tuesday morning.
“May I suggest spending less time sending ill-conceived risk management epistles prohibiting your teachers from displaying ‘controversial’ slogans like #BlackLivesMatter & more time learning [about] Black freedom movements? Thanks.”