Ijeoma Obi received an email on Dec. 29 with outside confirmation that she and fellow Black students experienced racism at Bangor High School.
The email contained a report from an independent investigation the Bangor School Department commissioned last year to look into experiences with racism that Obi and other Black students at the predominantly white school shared with the Bangor Daily News last June. The report came about a year after Obi, who has since graduated, first raised concerns at a Bangor School Committee meeting about racism at the city’s public high school.
The independent investigation, the cost of which is on track to exceed $70,000, confirmed that students at the high school use the N-word in hallways, on school buses and online, and a dress code that does not ban clothing featuring the Confederate flag. But the probe didn’t investigate the overall culture of the high school that led to these incidents, look into whether school policies were violated or offer recommendations on steps the school department should take to address racist behavior.
The 57-page report offered validation for Obi and her classmates. It contained confirmation, for example, that a white student had called Obi the N-word while flashing a Confederate flag belt buckle, and that another student had called her home-cooked Nigerian lunch “dog food.” Obi said she was shocked that students had admitted to that behavior, though the students told investigator Krystal Williams that their actions weren’t motivated by racial bias.
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“I think it gave me a level of exoneration because you know a lot of people had doubts,” she said.
But the document left her wanting more in the way of suggested steps the Bangor School Department should take moving forward.
“Maybe the investigation is more focused on giving them the facts. I feel it could have done a little bit more when it comes to giving suggestions,” Obi said. “But I think at this point, the school should be well aware of what they need to do.”
Interim Superintendent Kathy Harris-Smedberg said she will work with school employees specifically mentioned in the report — one of whom used the N-word in a classroom while teaching a text with the racial slur in it — to address their actions. But in a news conference last week, she also said no one would be fired as a result of the investigation.
She also pointed to a range of anti-racism initiatives the school department began last summer, following the publication of the BDN article featuring Obi and other Black students, called “Racism is my high school experience.”
Obi and Kosi Ifeji, now a junior at Bangor High, said they hope the school department delivers on those initiatives for the sake of future students of color. At the same time, Ifeji said, school administrators are relying too heavily on her to fix problems that are their responsibility, such as by asking her for suggestions on what the school department needs to do.
“They’re leaning on me so much to help them solve their problem with the bigoted culture at Bangor High School, even though that’s not my job,” she said. “Helping them solve their issue on race should not be my burden.”
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For the past semester, Ifeji said, administrators have approached her in the hallway to check on her and ask how school is going. While she understands their concern, she said, the outreach has made her feel singled out.
“My experiences at Bangor High School are a microcosm of the entire culture of the school,” Ifeji said. “So instead of focusing on me specifically, how about if we do something that will benefit the Bangor High School community?”
Last summer, former Bangor school Superintendent Betsy Webb outlined a handful of steps the school department planned in response to Obi, Ifeji and others publicly sharing their experiences with racism. They included building a more inclusive curriculum that features authors of color, instituting diversity training for school employees, and forming an advisory committee focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.
The investigative report included some specifics outlining steps the school department had already undertaken, such as measures to encourage students and employees to report acts of racism. (Williams said students don’t typically tell administrators when classmates use the N-word.)
At the start of the school year, Bangor schools introduced new ways for middle- and high-school students to file race- and gender-based discrimination complaints, according to Harris-Smedberg. Students received training on using their laptops or the Bangor School Department app to report complaints directly to Dana Carver-Bialer, the affirmative action and Title IX officer whom the school department hired this fall in yet another move addressing racism.
The school dress code is another area of focus.
After Williams found that the dress code does not explicitly ban clothing with the Confederate flag, Harris-Smedberg said that the school department needed to work on language to make the prohibition clearer. Although any clothing considered racially inflammatory or that contains hate speech violates the student expression policy, the dress code’s interpretation is subjective, she said.
As part of the investigation, Ifeji and Obi went through hours of interviews recounting details of discrimination they had dealt with throughout their high school careers. Both said Williams was sympathetic and easy to talk to, but neither wanted to retell the stories they had already discussed publicly.
“It was very tiring for someone to ask, ‘Did this really happen?’” Obi said. “Because it really just brings back a lot of bad memories that I tried to suppress.”
So far this school year, Ifeji said, not much has changed at Bangor High School. High school students have not yet received the promised diversity training that was supposed to be provided during the first two weeks of the school year, she said. The only tangible change, Ifeji said, is that she is one of three student representatives on the newly created diversity, equity and inclusion committee.
Both students said they hope their stories have spurred enough change for future students of color so they have better experiences at the high school than they did.
“I just want other students like me to be able to just be teenagers without the drama of someone calling them the N-word,” Ifeji said. “I really hope that the school makes it happen one day.”