The Portland Board of Public Education on March 7 unanimously approved three board resolutions: one affirming district employees’ free speech rights; one condemning hate speech and expressing support for the district’s Muslim students and staff; and one affirming the district’s commitment to making the Portland Public Schools a safe haven for students and families.
Eight of the board’s nine members were present at the meeting. The resolutions were supported by all the members present and the board’s student representatives.
The board held a public hearing prior to the vote. About a half dozen people spoke, all in support of the resolutions. They thanked the board for bringing the resolutions forward, saying they are necessary.
Jennifer Boggs, a Longfellow parent, said, “Right now, few would argue that there’s a real climate of fear, with the Muslim ban and so many other things that are happening around us.”
She added, “I think this sends a definite message to our Muslim students and kids of color and their families that they are valued and that we’ve got their back.” Boggs said it also sends a message to other students and their families “that not only is this what democracy looks like, but this is what fairness and equity look like, and this is what compassion looks like.”
Doris Santoro told the board that she was speaking as a Reiche Community School parent and a Bowdoin College professor who studies the ethics and practice of teaching. She said she supported all the resolutions but particularly wanted to address the one affirming the free speech rights of teachers and other staff.
Santoro said she is editing a book to be published by Harvard Education Press that shows that teachers have long been in the forefront of resisting infringement on students’ rights.
“They do so not because of a particular political ideology, but because it is their professional duty to protect children and young adults in their care,” she said. “Furthermore, they recognize that students living in fear and with grave uncertainty cannot learn. Teachers have justifiable educational reasons to speak out against hate and to act as advocates for their students and their families.”
Portland Education Association (PEA) President Sue Olafsen also spoke. She noted that the PEA represents almost 900 educators and educational technicians in the Portland Public Schools.
“During this time of increased uncertainty, I believe it’s important to reconfirm our values, our beliefs, our goals and set a positive example for others,” Olafsen said. “So I’m proud of my school district tonight, very proud, and I commend you on this good work.”
Kathleen Marquis-Girard, assistant principal at Portland High School, spoke on behalf of the Portland Administrators Association (PAA). “We reaffirm our unwavering support for each and every one of our students, no matter what their backgrounds, beliefs or circumstances,” she said. “We are deeply committed to providing full and equitable opportunities for every student and family that we are fortunate enough to have in our community.”
Marquis-Girard added, “We remain dedicated to cultivating classrooms and schools where students feel safe, welcome and free to be their complete selves. We know that Superintendent [Xavier] Botana shares and endorses these fundamental beliefs. We are profoundly grateful for his support of us as we strive to preserve and create the schools our kids deserve. We’re thankful for his unequivocal dedication to a fair chance and an excellent, caring education for all.”
School Board member Jenna Vendil proposed the resolutions to the board following a Jan. 27 racially motivated hate crime incident against some Casco Bay High School students at a public bus stop near the school. The board held a Feb. 21 workshop on the resolutions and then held a first reading on the proposals on Feb. 28.
The Portland Public Schools, which serves approximately 6,800 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12, is Maine’s largest and most diverse school district. Vendil said the resolutions are necessary to reaffirm the district’s commitment to providing a safe and supportive educational environment where all students can learn.
“These resolutions are needed to assure our students and families that the Portland Public Schools is committed to ensuring student safety, the free speech of employees and the privacy of immigrant families,” Vendil said.
Resolutions express the board’s sentiment but don’t have the force of policy or rules.
Superintendent Xavier Botana said that all three resolutions were reviewed by the district’s legal counsel. Now that they’re approved, the superintendent will work with legal counsel and staff to identify any new policies, rules or programs that should be developed based on the resolutions or any existing policies or rules that might need to be changed. “There is work that follows this,” Botana told the board.
“These resolutions are incredibly important,” Botana said. “They not only reaffirm the Portland Public Schools’ commitment to providing students, families and employees with a safe physical and emotional school environment that fosters academic achievement, but they also create meaningful opportunities to engage around the issues the resolutions address.”
The school board Resolution Affirming Employee Speech Rights says the school board “recognizes the importance of participation by school employees in public debate over local, state and national policy and civic issues, commends our staff for its past advocacy, and encourages school staff to continue speaking out for public school students and public education in a way that is consistent with their duties as educators, federal and state law and Portland Board of Public Education policy.”
The board voted to include Muslim staff members in the wording of another school board resolution. It now is titled: “Resolution Condemning Violence and Hate Speech, Expressing Support for Our Muslim Students and Staff.” That resolution notes that the families of approximately 850 students in the district come from countries that are predominantly Muslim. It also notes that “Arab and Muslim Americans, and those perceived as Muslims, are frequently the targets of abusive and discriminatory practices.”
The resolution decries hate speech and violence against all students, saying it “condemns all hateful speech and violent action directed at Muslims, those perceived as Muslims, immigrants, people of color, and members of all protected classes.” The board also voted to add wording to that resolution condemning hate speech and violence against anyone who is transgender or that is based on anyone’s political or economic status.
The school board Resolution Affirming its Commitment to the Education of All Children & Making Portland Public Schools a Safe Haven for Students and Families stresses that the district is committed to following a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling saying that no public school district can deny students an education based on their immigration status.
The resolution states: “The Board declares Portland Public Schools to be a safe haven for students and families threatened by immigration enforcement or discrimination, to the fullest extent permitted by law.”
Click HERE to see the board’s public hearing on the resolutions on YouTube.