Rosa Slack, one of two black teachers at Kennebunk High School, swallowed her surprise and took the moment in stride: One of her students breezed into the classroom with a Confederate flag draped over his shoulders like a cape while another student recorded her reaction without her knowledge and posted images to social media.

The two boys were suspended, but the event cascaded into a yearslong conflict with local administrators, culminating in Slack filing a race-based retaliation complaint that is pending before the Maine Human Rights Commission.

The flag incident turned out to be one of several episodes of racial tension in Kennebunk schools – including a threat by a middle school student a year earlier that he wanted to “kill all the blacks.”

The incident also highlights the recurrent problem of Confederate flags surfacing in Maine schools and how administrators struggle to address the issues of racism they evoke.

One biracial family moved out of Kennebunk because of the harassment they say their daughter experienced. Another high school teacher says she left the district because of her disgust over how the administration responded to the problems cited by Slack. A Kennebunk resident, who learned about the incident a year after it happened and was “horrified” there had not been a community response, was prompted to run for school board on a social justice platform, and won.

“I would like for this not to happen to anyone else,” Slack said about why she is taking the issue to the Human Rights Commission.

“They need to address it in some way. The people in Kennebunk, if they knew about a problem in their district around having an open, honest discussion around race, I think they would have it,” she said. “If they knew they had a problem.”

‘THERE HAS TO BE A COMMUNITY RESPONSE’

She says it wasn’t the flag incident itself that was the problem – it was how school and district officials failed to adequately respond to the March 2016 event and a year later retaliated against her on her job review after she accused them of failing to do enough to address incidents of racism at the school.

District Superintendent Kathryn Hawes said she could not discuss the particulars of the flag incident, which involved several students, because of confidentiality around personnel issues. But she said the school did extensive training with students about the Confederate flag, and that staff are required to review anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies annually.

“Much time was spent on teaching both students, and the rest of the student body, about the meaning and history of the flag and the way that it makes people feel,” said Hawes. More recently, district administrators had outside training on how to investigate allegations of bullying and harassment.

“I’m not saying we’re perfect,” Hawes said. “But we do not tolerate issues like that.”

Slack, who continued to work at the school for two more years after the incident, said there was never any schoolwide training.

“(Slack) made multiple attempts to get the administration to agree to provide meaningful, student-bodywide anti-bias training. They turned her down every time,” said her attorney, Max Brooks. “The administration’s failure to take effective steps to prevent additional racial harassment is why Rosa is standing up now for what’s right – so that future Kennebunk High School students and teachers and staff are kept safe from degrading racial harassment.”

Kennebunk High School has about two dozen black or multiracial students, out of a total enrollment of 710 students, or about 3 percent. Statewide, about 6 percent of all students are black or biracial, or just over 11,000 students out of about 180,500 students.

Kennebunk High School has about two dozen black or multiracial students, or about 3 percent of the total enrollment of 710 students. Statewide, about 6 percent of all students are black or biracial, or just over 11,000 students out of about 180,500 students. Experts say racism can occur in every demographic and in every part of the state. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Rachel Phipps said the Slack incident prompted her to run for school board, and since being elected last year, she has been pushing for schoolwide bias training for students and teachers – which she said has not happened yet – and a community discussion about race and bias. Phipps said she knows there hasn’t been any discussion of the Confederate flag with students because she has a daughter who attended Kennebunk High School at the time.

“I’m deeply disturbed by the racism that exists in our community and our school,” said Phipps, who said she was speaking as a citizen and not on behalf of the board, which does not allow anyone other than the chairwoman to comment on issues. “There has to be a community response to that.”

She said she and a friend learned about the incident more than a year after it happened.

“We were both horrified that the community had not been informed about this. I felt like we had really lost an opportunity to respond,” she said. After she was elected to the board, she told the superintendent directly “how disappointed” she was in how it was handled.

“I feel like our district, starting at the highest level, needs to address structural and institutional racism and how it affects our students,” she said. “It’s absolutely needed and I’ve been very vocal about that.”

‘REALLY MADE TO FEEL COMPLETELY ISOLATED’

The flag incident in Slack’s classroom happened during school spirit week in March 2016, in the first year she taught in Kennebunk. She initially thought it was an isolated incident but learned the next day that same flag had been used by some of the same students to menace a black student, Jalion McLean, the year before, also during school spirit week. In that case, according to the student’s mother, Susan McLean, the boys walked into a classroom where her daughter was standing and held up the flag to her as she quickly left the room.

The teacher in the classroom “didn’t really respond” to the incident in the moment, McLean said. She met later with school officials but got little satisfaction.

“Basically the response was, ‘I understand what you are saying, but you are overreacting. This is not racist,’ ” she said.

Earlier that year, a teacher reported that while McLean’s daughter, Jalion, was out of the classroom, one of the students said he wanted to “kill all the blacks,” and the school transferred him out of her class.

McLean said she and her family felt their concerns about discrimination were dismissed by school officials and administrators.

“You feel pretty powerless in that situation,” she said. “We were really made to feel completely isolated, that we were being dramatic.”

In its official response to the Human Rights Commission, district officials said Slack and McLean, who got her information from her daughter, are incorrect and that none of the boys involved in the middle school incident with Jalion were involved in the Slack incident. They also said the principal made a plan to make sure the students “were separated” from Jalion.

McLean moved her family out of Kennebunk to South Berwick, where Jalion enrolled at Marshwood High School. But she found herself on the bus with some of the Kennebunk boys who, like her, were attending the regional Career and Technical Education program in Sanford.

Some of them were part of the group disciplined for displaying the Confederate flag, only now they were wearing Confederate flag belt buckles. McLean said as they passed black students sitting on the bus, they lifted their shirts and held up the belt buckle at them as they walked by.

She went to the courts and got two orders of protection against two boys who had a history of harassing Jalion.

“That’s the route that I have gone recently,” she said. “The school I know for certain is not going to handle the situation in any which way so it’s not up to them anymore.”

Slack, who has been a teacher and administrator for over 20 years, said she had several troubling incidents at the Kennebunk district during the three years she worked there, before quitting at the end of the 2017-18 school year and taking a job at Portland High School.

TEACHER STARTS A CIVIL RIGHTS TEAM

Months before the flag incident, a freshman student in one of her classes was criminally charged and convicted of threatening to burn her house down. The year after the flag incident, Slack started a school civil rights team but was told the team couldn’t send a letter of support to the Casco Bay High School civil rights team in Portland – where students at a bus stop were harassed with hate speech – on the superintendent’s orders. Only after an in-person meeting between the team and Hawes were they allowed to send the letter – if they stripped off the school letterhead.

She said she felt the administration retaliated against her for sticking up for her rights and requesting that the district provide more race-based training for both students and teachers.

“I was told very matter-of-factly by (Hawes, the superintendent) that I was too dumb to know what I was doing. I was humiliated relentlessly and repeatedly by someone who had the power to do so, to the point that the harassment, coupled with a charge and conviction of a student terrorizing me, made me realize that my place of work and my home was not safe. I could not live and raise my family in the Kennebunk community,” she wrote in an email describing her situation. “I was an excellent teacher, I paid my taxes and tried to be a good neighbor to all, and yet I had to move and find another place to work.”

Slack taught social studies at Kennebunk High School from fall 2015 to spring 2018, and was a teacher and director of academic affairs at Old Orchard Beach High School from September 2006 to August 2015. Previous to that, she was a teacher, assistant principal and curriculum coordinator at a Brooklyn, New York, high school.

‘JUST JOKING AROUND’ IS NOT A DEFENSE

Maine has laws against bullying students, but the statute does not include language about bullying directed at teachers. There is no comprehensive tally or reporting requirement for race-based harassment.

A student survey, the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, includes a question about racial comments or attacks. In the 2017 results, 425 black students – or 41.3 percent of those answering the survey – said they had been subject to “offensive racial comments or attacked” based on their race or ethnicity either at school or on the way to and from school.

Brandon Baldwin, project director for the Civil Rights Project in the Maine Attorney General’s Office, said the Confederate flag issue comes up at least yearly. He said Mainers need to understand that racism can occur in every demographic and every part of the state.

“I think it’s important that schools be asking themselves the hard questions,” Baldwin said. “To be truly effective, it needs to transcend the incident and move away from the incident and to the bigger and overall issue, and the overall issue is race and racism,” he said. “Ask: What are we doing to make it a racially inclusive school? What are we doing to make things better? Oftentimes, schools are reluctant to have those conversations.”

Hawes said the Kennebunk student who wore the flag into Slack’s classroom “reportedly thought he was representing ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ and draped himself in the flag.”

But Baldwin said the excuse of “just joking around” is not as innocent as it seems. “Think of how often we hear this in our schools … the ‘just joking around’ defense,” he said. “This is not to suggest that anyone who tells bias-based jokes is going to commit a violent hate crime, but jokes have meaning.”

RIGHTS COMMISSION’S TIMELINE FOR COMPLAINT

Confederate flag issues have occurred in other Maine schools, including Ellsworth, where high school students were flying the flags from their trucks in the school parking lot, and at Foxcroft Academy, where officials told a student who painted the flag on the tailgate of his truck to cover it up or park off-campus.

Telstar Regional High School in Bethel used the Confederate flag as its school flag until 1992, when the NAACP complained. The school’s team is still known as the Rebels.

Hawes, the Kennebunk superintendent, said the district has had “very, very few such incidents,” like the Confederate flag issue, but notes that “we aren’t a place that has a ton of diversity.”

The incidents described by Slack and McLean, she said, “are a couple of people who have their own perception about what did happen and what didn’t happen. What you are describing is not the culture that I’ve experienced in this district.

“It is an issue everywhere, there is no question about it,” Hawes said. “But if anything, I have experienced this district and this community to be incredibly cohesive and accepting.”

In her complaint to the Maine Human Rights Commission, Slack says she was discriminated against because of her race and because she was a whistle-blower who protested the district’s failure to respond adequately to the racial incidents in the schools.

She also accuses the district of retaliating against her by downgrading her performance in her annual evaluation, where she had previously always received high marks.

In its 2018 annual report, the commission said 26 percent of the 709 complaints received that year had to do with retaliation, and 5.5 percent were specifically for race-based discrimination.

The commission has two years – until January 2020 – to make a finding, and Slack’s case has been assigned an investigator and fact-finding is underway, her lawyer said. The investigator’s report is reviewed by commission staff, who make a recommendation to the commissioners, for decisions at public meetings. If they find reasonable grounds for the complaint, the commission attempts to resolve the issue with an agreement between the parties, and if that is unsuccessful, the complainant and commission may file lawsuits in court.

Slack said she pursued other options before filing a complaint with the commission. She met directly with school and district leaders, she approached her union, but it didn’t feel like enough, she said.

“I was just beaten up,” Slack said, her voice cracking. “I was just done. It was crazy. So unpredictable. I said, I did nothing wrong. What I brought to Kennebunk was what I brought to every school I have ever worked at, and yet this was happening to me.”

By the end, Slack said, it wasn’t about the students at all – they were just children and didn’t know any better. It was about the adults in the situation, and their failure to respond appropriately.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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