The superintendent of Regional School Unit 21 in Kennebunk is defending her district’s handling of racist incidents that led a black teacher to file a race-based retaliation complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission.

Rosa Slack

But the superintendent’s public statement, posted on the district website in response to a Maine Sunday Telegram article, drew fire from a school board member who called it “a false statement” and “morally reprehensible.”

The human rights complaint, filed by former social studies teacher Rosa Slack, had its roots in a March 2016 event, when a student came into her classroom wearing a Confederate flag like a cape. He was later suspended, along with another student who taped Slack’s reaction and posted it on social media, but Slack said the district retaliated against her a year later on her job review after she accused it of failing to do enough to address incidents of racism at the school.

In her statement, Superintendent Kathryn Hawes wrote that “it (is) important for the community to understand that contrary to the statements made by (teacher Rosa Slack’s) attorney, RSU 21 takes all complaints seriously, investigates them, and takes prompt effective remedial action.

“Furthermore, the RSU 21 Board did not reject suggestions of anti-bias training,” Hawes wrote. “Rather the primary issue of disagreement between the school board and Ms. Slack related to the demand for a cash payment made by her attorney.”

Slack’s attorney, Max Brooks, said in an interview Tuesday that the “cash payment” referred to by Hawes would have paid Slack’s attorney fees and funded comprehensive racial bias training at the school by a third party, as part of negotiations to settle potential civil rights claims against the district.

“The superintendent’s statement is false,” Brooks said. “Settlement negotiations broke down because of the district’s unwillingness to engage in meaningful anti-bias training.”

He said they suggested a two-year training program, for roughly $7,000 a year, and the district countered with a proposal to pay for a two-hour anti-bias session on a weekend, open to students, teachers, administrators and interested community members, and to pay a portion of Slack’s attorney fees. “In the end, there was no settlement at all,” he said.

RSU 21 Superintendent Kathryn Hawes said “the primary issue of disagreement between the school board and Ms. Slack related to the demand for a cash payment made by her attorney.” Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Board member Rachel Phipps said in an email exchange with Hawes and the board Monday that she was “dismayed that the Superintendent falsely implicated the school board,” noting that the board had “absolutely no knowledge or input into the settlement discussions after our Executive Session of February 5th, 2018, thus making the public statement that the board had a ‘primary issue of disagreement’ obviously false.”

“Further, the implication that Ms. Slack was primarily looking for a cash payment is totally untrue and morally reprehensible,” she wrote. “I demand that the Superintendent immediately issue a correction about the involvement of the school board.”

When Hawes disagreed and suggested the issue wait for an executive session discussion on Feb. 26, Phipps resisted.

“A correction of your false statement about a school board decision cannot wait a week. You have implicated me personally in a lie and I won’t stand for it,” Phipps responded. At that point, school board chairwoman Emily Kahn cut off the email exchange, pointing out that “a non board member” (a Press Herald reporter) was included in the thread.

Kahn said Tuesday that she is committed to working on race and bias issues.

“My plan going forward, as a community member and parent, is to do everything I can to participate in an open and honest discussion about race and bias in our community, and take action to make sure our schools are inclusive and safe for all students and staff,” she said in an email. “This is a complicated problem and addressing it will take a concerted effort by the district and the community over a period of time.”

When asked if she thought the board would respond officially to the situation, she said, “I expect the board and our community will be having many discussions about these issues in the short and long term.”

School board member Rachel Phipps said she was “dismayed that the Superintendent falsely implicated the school board.” Staff photo by Gregory Rec

MULTIPLE TROUBLING INCIDENTS

Hawes did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday, with an automated email response that said she was on vacation and would return after the school break.

Slack says it wasn’t the flag incident itself that was the problem – it was how school and district officials failed to adequately respond. 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.

Slack said she heard from students and families about other incidents.

After the Confederate flag incident in her classroom, Slack said she learned the same flag was used a year earlier to menace a biracial middle school student in the classroom. In another incident, a middle school student said in a classroom that he wanted to “kill all the blacks.” Another incident happened off campus, when a car full of boys slowed down and flapped a Confederate flag at three biracial children walking to Hannaford.

Hawes said there was no overlap in the boys involved in the two Confederate flag incidents at school, but Brooks said their investigation found that there was a three-student overlap of individuals involved in both incidents: “It seems like the district still doesn’t have its facts straight about what happened.”

STUDENT: ‘THERE WAS NO TRAINING’

Slack and the family of the middle school student confirmed that some of the same boys were involved in the two incidents.

Slack, who filed the complaint with the Human Rights Commission in January 2018, said she felt the administration retaliated against her for sticking up for her rights and asking that the district provide more race-based training for students and teachers.

Hawes said the school did extensive training with students about the Confederate flag, and that staff members 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,” Hawes said. More recently, district administrators had outside training on how to investigate allegations of bullying and harassment, she said.

But in recent days, several parents and students have said there was no specific training for students and no communication with parents about the Confederate flag issue with Slack or the middle school student.

“There was no training, and there was no acknowledgment at all that anything happened,” said Nate Durham, who was a freshman at Kennebunk High School when the flag incident with Slack happened. Students were widely talking about it when it happened, he said.

“I think everyone is extremely disgusted with what happened and disgusted with the way the administration handled it,” he said. “I think most people are incredibly disappointed and fed up.”

His father, Ian Durham, said he feels like the superintendent’s letter is “shuffling the blame elsewhere.”

“As a parent, when the incident happened, I should have gotten an email saying this is what happened and we are going to have a communitywide discussion about it.”

“I’m glad Ms. Slack took this to the Human Rights Commission. It shines a light on this and won’t get this brushed under the rug.”

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

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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