Bangor High School students use the N-word at school, on buses and online and still can wear Confederate flag attire without violating the school’s dress code, according to an independent investigator’s report.
That report substantiates many of the claims of racism at the school that were detailed in a Bangor Daily News article published in June about the experiences of some Black students at the school. The school district decided to hire an investigator to look into racist incidents at the high school soon after the article was published.
The Bangor Daily News this week obtained a partial copy of the investigator’s report, even though it has not been publicly released.
The investigator, Portland lawyer Krystal Williams, found evidence that supports much of what the Black students told the BDN: white students called them the N-word, defended slavery and white supremacy in class discussions and teachers mixed up the identities of Black students at the predominately white high school.
Williams also found evidence of other discriminatory behavior, including a white student who called former student Ijeoma Obi’s home-cooked, Nigerian lunch “dog food,” and a white teacher who used the N-word while teaching text containing the word.
In her investigation, Williams did not find that teachers and administrators failed to appropriately handle students’ use of the N-word. She said that students generally do not report use of the N-word by other students, which is part of the problem.
Obi, former student Amara Ifeji and her sister, junior Kosi Ifeji, all had told the BDN they had reported their experiences several times to teachers and administrators, only to be told they couldn’t do anything and that they should take matters into their own hands.
For example, both former Superintendent Betsy Webb and Bangor High School Principal Paul Butler said in June that students wearing Confederate flag attire at school is offensive and would not be allowed. Six months later, however, the school has not updated the dress code to explicitly ban Confederate attire. A student can only be in violation of the dress code if their attire creates a “substantial disruption,” which can be interpreted in different ways, the investigation found.
Over the last four months, Williams — who was hired by the Bangor School Department in August — interviewed 23 people including students, teachers and administrators. Obi, Amara and Kosi Ifeji were among those people. Ibby Konteh, another former student who shared his experiences of racism with the BDN was not part of the investigation.
The investigation looked into 22 total incidents of discrimination, 18 of which were brought forward by the Black students. Williams found proof to fully support 14 claims based on witness accounts and interviews with staff and administrators. Most of those, like Obi’s account of being called the N-word in gym class by a student wearing a confederate flag belt buckle or Amara Ifeji’s experience of a white student in her civics class who said that white people are superior, were backed by witness accounts, according to the investigation report.
Williams also investigated two incidents Konteh told the BDN about, one of which involved someone writing “N-word” on his car while it was parked at the high school. Konteh reported the incident but told the BDN that the administration did not take action. Williams found that the absence of action was due to a lack of witnesses.
Two claims the investigation delved into were general behavior trends many interviewees complained about, including the widespread use of the N-word and the dress code that did not explicitly ban Confederate flag attire.
Overall, what Williams discovered through her fact-finding mission were patterns that were allowed to continue due to lack of oversight, such as white students commenting on or touching Black students’ hair or lack of guidance for teachers on how to approach texts that use the N-word.
She also found that not everyone recalled the incidents the Black students described, but everyone who was accused of discriminatory behavior claimed that their actions were not driven by any racial bias.
However, the scope of the investigation was limited to fact-finding about specific incidents. Williams determined there was proof of racist and discriminatory incidents at the school, but did not draw any conclusions about the existence of institutional racial bias, the high school’s failure to act, or whether any of the discriminatory actions (other than wearing Confederate attire) violated school policies.
The school department initially hired Rebekah Smith, an attorney at Seven Tree Solutions, to look into the matter but, after city councilors and the Black students insisted, decided instead to hire Williams, who is Black, to conduct the investigation.
So far, the investigation has cost the school department more than $67,000. The final total will be higher as the department has not yet received a bill from the law firm for December, according to Superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg.