James Tager, superintendent of the Bangor School Department, says addressing racism in the city's schools is a top priority. He's taking over after Black students at Bangor High School came forward to discuss their experiences with racism at the predominantly white high school. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Bangor schools Superintendent James Tager recognizes that race is not the easiest subject to discuss. He looks forward to a time when we can talk about the “human race.” Yet that day has yet to come in Maine and the U.S. overall, he said.

“Sometimes, people would rather avoid tough conversations,” Tager said. “Race is maybe at the forefront of things that people would rather not talk about.”  

But racism in the Bangor School Department came to the forefront of conversation last summer when several Black students at Bangor High School shared their experiences with racism at the predominantly white high school, including white students calling them the N-word and defending slavery and white supremacy in class discussions.

An outside investigation completed late last year confirmed those reports, though some of the students who experienced the racism were underwhelmed by the probe and thought it should have outlined how the school department could address racist behavior.

Tager, who took office in July, said that he sees addressing past issues with racism and creating a culture of equality in Bangor’s schools as a top priority.

He seeks to do that with several initiatives, including hiring new staff members of color. In a state that is the whitest in the country, he acknowledges such a task may not be easy. He plans to devote coronavirus relief funds to help with recruiting.

“I would like to have students see people in front of them that are just like them,” Tager said, “whether it’s a teacher, a leader, a principal or a mentor.”

The school department has recently used such coronavirus relief funds to hire a mentoring coordinator and a graduation coach. These new staff members will help many of the school department’s most marginalized groups, including students of color, as well as those with disabilities, Tager said.

About 11 percent of Bangor’s population is non-white or Hispanic, making up more than 3,000 residents across the city. That rate is higher for students within Bangor schools.

Title IX Coordinator Dana Carver-Bialer, who was hired in the aftermath of the reports of racism along with school safety officer and communications director Ray Phinney, has allowed students to have a safe place to talk to someone during the school day, whether about issues related to race, gender identity or sexual orientation, Tager said.  

He did not know of any racially motivated incidents since the beginning of the school year, though he didn’t discount the possibility that they could happen.

“I think we will have incidents,” Tager said. “But now we have a mechanism to deal with them.”

He also plans to test students, teachers, faculty and parents of students at Bangor High School for implicit biases using the John Hopkins University School of Education’s School Culture 360 test. In contrast to the investigation at Bangor High, it will allow people to speak freely and anonymously, Tager said, with its results providing a blueprint for what work needs to be done.

Tager, who grew up in the Cleveland area before working as an educator in Florida for a number of years, said conversations and experiences with people of color close to him had influenced his mindset on issues of race.

Those experiences made him realize that he may have had advantages that others did not have. He noted that a Black educator he worked with seemed to get fewer opportunities than he did, and seemed to be asked harder questions in job interviews despite being equally or more qualified.

“I certainly have been blessed in the experiences that I’ve had,” Tager said. “And I wish that some of my friends would have had the same opportunity.”

Tager said many of the school department’s efforts to address racial bias will go before its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, an advisory committee formed after the reports about racism at Bangor High became public and that began meeting before Tager took office. 

When the committee meets again later this fall, the two co-chairs will be Carver-Bialer and Marwa Hassanien, who was the first Muslim woman elected to the Bangor School Committee. Hassanien is currently the committee’s vice chair and Northern Light Health’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Tager, who hopes to enlist 500 mentors in the school department of over 3,500 students, said he plans to enlist people of color into that program. While he was superintendent of Flagler Schools in Florida, the district ran a successful program that aimed to connect Black students with older Black residents of the community.

The Bangor School Department also plans to undertake a core curriculum materials audit to make sure it offers materials to which all students can relate, Tager said.

Tager said efforts to increase equality and understanding within the school department were deeply personal for him, on par with student learning and above addressing COVID-19.

“This job has involved balancing a few different, probably unprecedented events. This is an important one for us moving forward.” Tager said. “I think it’s an important thing within our country, too.”