A man accused of hurling racial slurs and then assaulting ninth-graders from Casco Bay High School in Portland late last month pleaded not guilty Monday to two counts of assault and a charge of interfering with constitutional rights.

Jamie Hoffman, 20, was arrested last week in connection with the Jan. 27 incident on Allen Avenue, where the students were waiting for a bus.

Prosecutors said police are still investigating an allegation that Hoffman brandished a screwdriver during the incident, so more charges could be filed. The charges he faced Monday carry a penalty of up to a year in prison each. Hoffman’s next court hearing will be in April.

Hoffman’s lawyer, Pat Gordon, said part of the case would involve his client’s free speech rights.

“In any case like this, there’s a huge question of what’s protected speech,” Gordon said. “We still have a First Amendment.”

Four ninth-graders at the school reported that a man made racist remarks to them as they waited for a bus. Prosecutors said Monday that man was Hoffman and he allegedly also told the students, “You don’t belong here.”

The students and the man, who was with two other people, exchanged more words. The students said the man then assaulted two of the teenagers and pulled a knife, although prosecutors said police suspect it was actually a screwdriver. They are still looking into that aspect of the incident.

The man ran down Abbott Street after the incident.

The issue turned political within a few days, after Portland Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana wrote an open letter to the school community blaming a “noxious” political environment that created the climate in which the incident occurred. That prompted the Maine Republican Party to say Friday that it would file a Freedom of Access Act request to see if there had been communications between school officials and outside political groups. Student rallies were held Friday afternoon at Portland and Deering high schools to show solidarity with the students involved in the incident.

Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, said taxpayer dollars were being used to politicize a public school and alleged that students were allowed to use class time and school resources to make signs for the rallies, although he couldn’t provide any evidence of that.

The party complained that Botana’s letter made the school environment hostile to teachers, parents and students who do not share the superintendent’s political views.

Hoffman made his initial court appearance on the charges Monday. A judge set bail at $1,000 cash and said Hoffman, who lives with his parents in Portland, has to abide by an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew unless he is working. Gordon said he had not talked to Hoffman’s parents Monday afternoon and didn’t know if he or they would be able to post bail.

Prosecutors provided a brief outline of the incident and asked the judge to set bail at $1,500 cash, citing Hoffman’s prior criminal record, which includes charges of drug possession, burglary and possession or distribution of dangerous knives, and three incidents in which he was charged with violating conditions of release.

Gordon asked that Hoffman be released on personal recognizance or bail of no more than $300, noting that he was about to start work at a fast-food restaurant.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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