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School Board Revises Policy on Harassment

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School Board Revises Policy on Harassment
Posted on 10/27/2020
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The Portland Board of Public Education this month unanimously approved extensive revisions to the Board’s policy regarding harassment, discrimination, and sexual harassment of students.

The district has worked with a coalition of community-based advocates over the past year to revise the policy to more effectively support the development of safe and equitable schools. The policy now reflects best practice from the field in terms of the prevention and handling of incidents of harassment, discrimination, or sexual harassment. The approved changes in the policy also align with new Title IX rules. Title IX is a federal law protecting against discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.

Board members praised members of the Harassment Policy Subcommittee, which developed the revisions, and particularly recognized Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend, who guided the work. Board Chair Roberto Rodriguez also commended the Board for supporting the changes. “I’m very proud of the Board for recognizing the magnitude, and the significance and value of this work,” Rodriguez said.

Superintendent Xavier Botana said, “This is a model of exemplary policy work. I believe that it reflects our values as an institution. I am proud of the outcome and believe that the entire Portland Public Schools family  – students, staff, families and the greater community – can be proud of it too.”

“Identity-based harassment, from microaggressions to acts of violence, affects our whole school community. Studies [nationwide] reveal that half of all high school students report some experience of sexual harassment. Students of color, immigrant and refugee students and LGBTQ students often experience greater levels of bias and threats of violence that interfere with their education. The problem has been well documented and we also know quite a bit about potential reform,” said Kimberly Simmons, part-time faculty in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Southern Maine and member of the Harassment Policy Subcommittee. “It is exciting to have the Portland Public Schools commit to implementing youth-informed best practices to prevent and respond to unwelcome sexual conduct and identity-based harassment and violence. In partnership with community organizations and students, PPS can be a true leader in 21st century education for everyone.”

The Harassment Policy Subcommittee included representatives from Through These Doors; Prevention, Action, Change: Speak About It; Students Speak Up; Maine Boys to Men; SafeBAE; the University of Southern Maine; Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine; Child Advocacy Center; Pine Tree Legal Assistance; the University of Maine School of Law; Planned Parenthood of Northern New England; and Portland Public Schools Board members and staff.

The Board held a first read and workshop on the policy changes at its Oct. 6 meeting and voted on the final changes at its Oct. 20 meeting.

The policy was previously titled “Harassment and Sexual Harassment of Students,” and consisted of just over one page. The revised policy now includes “Discrimination” in its title and more explicit definitions of the meaning of harassment, discrimination and sexual harassment.

The revised policy also begins with an affirmation of the district’s mission. Part of that affirmation states that the “Portland Public Schools (PPS) affirms our intention to create a climate of respect, inclusion, and equity for all. We acknowledge that historical and societal biases shape our school policies, culture, and interpersonal interactions. We commit to increased prevention programming and education and swifter intervention when problems are reported. We commit to repairing the harm caused to individuals and to school communities when there are incidents or patterns of bias, discrimination, harassment, or sexual harassment. We strive to create a school district where all students, staff, and faculty feel safe and welcome.”

The changes in the policy also include safe reporting procedures designed to ensure that students can report instances of harassment and discrimination without fear of negative consequences or retaliation. While this policy development was already underway, the district faced an example of the need to provide safe reporting when it was faced with a number of allegations of harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination on social media this past summer.  That resulted in an investigation that is nearing conclusion. A public report is expected in December.

Now that the policy has been approved, the district will commence a rollout initiative that will begin immediately and wrap up by June. Included will be staff training, a Parent University event in early 2021, youth engagement and finalizing reporting and data collection processes. In discussing the implementation plan, Superintendent Botana reminded the Board that “implementing this exemplary policy will take a significant amount of work and resources. It will be important this spring to recognize the commitments that we are making through this process and prioritize the needed resources for them as we advance our FY 22 budget.”

The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with approximately 6,750 students, and is also the most diverse. About one-third of the district’s students – 35 percent – come from homes where languages other than English are spoken—a total of more than 60 languages. About 53 percent of the district’s students are white and 47 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced school lunch.