AUBURN — A story by The Teacher Project at Columbia Journalism School found troubling examples of racism at Edward Little High School.

Scott Annear, the school’s principal, said Friday “it hurts, no question” to read the story’s details published this week on The Boston Globe’s website with the headline “Immigrant students learn hard lessons about racism at a historically white high school in Maine.”

The 4,000-word story in The Boston Globe Magazine by Mike Elsen-Rooney and Ashley Okwuosa found that “racial incidents — captured in videos, contained in classroom taunts, and occasionally ending in fights — have become commonplace” at the Auburn school.

For Shukri Abdirahman, who graduated last year and attends the University of Maine Farmington, it’s both shocking and amazing to see the story available to the world.

“They got it right,” she said Friday.

Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin said Friday the story reflects the views of some students accurately but doesn’t fully capture the school’s commitment to providing “safe and respectful places” for all the youngsters in the district.

She said, though, there is “room to improve” and that the schools have to keep trying to find more ways to protect students from racist, inappropriate behavior.

Steve Wessler, founder of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence, said Friday he’s worked with public and private schools in many states and in Europe, often making recommendations to them about how to handle issues related to racial bias.

Out of all of them over the course of decades, he said, “there’s no school district that I’ve worked with that’s been more responsive” than Auburn. After he conducted a series of focus groups with students to figure out what’s needed, he said, he provided reports outlining what ought to be done to make improvements.

Each time, Wessler said, Auburn quickly agreed to do everything he urged, including training sessions for teachers it agreed to do before the Teacher Project reporters showed up

“I hold Edward Little up as a school that is extremely responsive,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe it deserves to be singled out as a place with problems.

But Okwuosa said Friday that administrators and teachers at Edward Little showed “a lack of accountability” in dealing with complaints raised by immigrants and students of color at the overwhelmingly white school

Edward Little has about 1,000 students, 85% of them white. That makes it one of the more diverse high schools in Maine, but nowhere near the 37% minority rate at Lewiston High School, which Okwuosa said does a better job dealing with racial issues.

Citing interviews with 14 immigrant students and several parents, the story said racism “has gone unchecked and festered” within the Auburn school’s student body, with the problem growing worse since the election of Donald Trump as president three years ago.

For instance, 16-year-old Fatuma Hussein, one of the students, told the reporters “she’s heard classmates jeering ‘build the wall’ or ‘ban Muslims’ as she walked through the hallway.“

The story makes clear that the issues it illuminates extend far beyond the halls of Edward Little.

“Similar problems are popping up in schools across the country,” it said, including “torn hijabs, Confederate flags in classrooms, swastikas scrawled on school grounds” and more.

Annear said his school tries hard to ensure all of its students are “safe and comfortable” but acknowledges the perspectives of some reflected in the story show there’s room to improve.

He said the story’s focus missed the greater truth that “the day-to-day vibe of what we see and experience in the building” is generally good.

Elsen-Rooney said he can’t say what normally goes on at the school. But, he said, it was clear from the reporting that there is “a big disconnect” between what white students experience and what minorities and immigrants go through.

He said it is “like two different schools.”

Annear said the problems cited in the story are typical of many American high schools and they are something Edward Little administrators realized they had to address more seriously even before reporters began asking questions.

He said the school “really upped our game” a year ago after educators started “to feel and see many things” that disturbed them in terms of race. He said it hurts some to have the spotlight turned on Auburn “when the wheels have been in motion” to make improvements.

Still,  the principal said, “one incident is one too many” and he isn’t about to challenge the perspectives of students who have felt the sting of racism.

“It’s not perfect,” Annear said. “No school is perfect.”

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque said the story “highlights the issues of acceptance, toleration and diversity that every community in America must deal with.”

He said it would be unfair to think Auburn “is somehow unique within Maine or the nation.”

Levesque pointed out that “over the course of Auburn’s history, we have welcomed people from throughout the world, whether they were French, Greeks, Jews or Somalis.”

“Auburn values hard work and the ability to overcome adversity to better one’s self and their neighbors regardless of where you come from,” the mayor said. “That has been proven time and time again.”

Still, Levesque said, “Do we have more work to do? Of course, but that work will never end. It’s an ever-changing process.”

Sarah Carr, who oversees The Teacher Project, said Friday the piece is part of a series focusing on the experiences of immigrant children trying to get an education. She said they cast a wide net looking for telling examples.

She said they wound up focusing on Auburn, in part, because she’s familiar, as someone who grew up in New England, with the Somali influx into Lewiston. A colleague who’s writing a book suggested taking a look at Lewiston and Auburn as well, Carr said.

At first, a freelancer began searching for possible stories in the community, Carr said, and zeroed in on Auburn as a city that hasn’t gotten the same level of media attention as Lewiston. When the freelancer moved on, Elsen-Rooney and Okwuosa dug in for the long haul.

They looked at both Lewiston and Auburn, the reporters said, but decided that Auburn’s administration didn’t seem as responsive to student concerns and didn’t get the same level of scrutiny as the schools on the other side of the Androscoggin River. The two did give the school credit, though, for opening its doors to them.

The two reporters talked with students, teachers, educators, outside experts and others as they delved into the details of what it’s like for immigrants at the Auburn school.

Elsen-Rooney said Friday that an American Civil Liberties Union report that Abdirahman helped create during her student days at Edward Little provided “a starting point” for an investigation by the pair that began last November.

Okwuosa, who is researching maternal health in Nigeria for a story, said many students at Edward Little and beyond don’t understand what it’s like for the minority students who share the school.

Elsen-Rooney, who covers education for the New York Daily News, said he thinks people of color are more apt to speak up these days when something isn’t right.

“That can be really uncomfortable,” he said, but it also offers educators a chance to make needed changes.

Carr said the story wound up in The Boston Globe, which plans to publish it in its magazine Sunday, because it is “a good regional publication” that would have an interest in Maine. In general, she said, the project tries to place stories in relevant media outlets around the country.

Abdirahman said she hopes people will read The Teacher Project story — and that it will help lead to changes for students at Edward Little.


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