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PPS Report on Social Media Allegations

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PPS Report on Social Media Allegations
Posted on 02/03/2021
This is the image for the news article titled PPS Report on Social Media AllegationsThe Portland Public Schools on Feb. 3, 2021 released a public report on the results of a comprehensive investigation of student allegations of sexual harassment and of gender, identity and racial bias and discrimination by past and present staff and the school district.

The allegations were posted on social media this past summer by former and current students about individual staff and about the Portland Public Schools as an institution. The report details the subsequent steps that district administration took to undertake a comprehensive investigation of the allegations, which resulted in appropriate disciplinary steps in some cases. The report also provides a summary of the lessons that the district as a whole learned from the investigation. Additionally, the report spells out what the district is doing and needs to do to create a culture where the behaviors giving rise to these claims simply don’t happen.

“As Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, the Portland Public Schools strives to be a school district where all students and staff feel safe and able to learn in an environment free from harassment, discrimination and bias,” said Superintendent Xavier Botana. “These claims clearly told us that the lived experiences of many of our students do not reflect that. We investigated the allegations and took appropriate steps to understand the truth behind them. We’ve also endeavored to take away lessons from these complaints about ways that our systems, practices and procedures can be improved so we can continue to grow and become what we want to be.”

The allegations were made in June at the height of the national reckoning with institutional and systemic bias that happened in response to the killing of George Floyd. The Portland Public Schools was not alone in being called to account; similar postings were directed at schools, universities, government entities and businesses.

Approximately 60 former and current students posted allegations covering time periods ranging from the early 2000s to the present day. They made allegations about 39 current staff members and 19 former staff. The district has more than 1,300 employees. The students also alleged that administrators failed to respond to their complaints about harassment and discrimination. Students also made claims against the school district itself as an unjust institution.

The report does not associate staff names with specific investigative actions. That information is a private personnel matter under Maine law. The report also does not include the identities of students making the complaints, most of whom wished to remain anonymous.

Anonymous complaints limit disciplinary options, but the allegations were used as a starting point for discussions with current staff identified in the posts about issues of bias, boundaries and professionalism with students. In addition to disciplinary steps in some cases, the investigation process led to significant reflection and introspection by many of the staff involved.  “I have had countless conversations with many of those people,” Botana wrote in a letter to the PPS community, which is included in the report. “I have seen firsthand how they have suffered, grieved and learned.”  

He said he hopes the report also sends a message to the students who made the complaints that “we listened to them, we heard them and we learned from them.”  

The process does not end with the publication of the report, which is intended to spur further processing and reflection at the individual, school, district and community level.  It also will serve as a springboard for initiatives on the part of the school district. Many of the initiatives were started prior to the posts, some as the result of them, and others are proposed.  

Actions already in progress include a Gender Expansive Policy that the Portland Board of Public Education approved in 2017; equity training, equity cohort and equity audit work; a Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Policy that was updated and approved by the Board this past fall; a comprehensive review of discipline policies and the development of an Equity Policy, both expected to be completed by the end of this year; an annual survey of student perceptions conducted annually since 2018; and a review of curriculum with a lens toward making curriculum more reflective of the diverse experiences and backgrounds of district students.

Proposed actions include creating the role of an ombudsman so student complaints can be addressed in a fair and consistent manner, with clear communication; structured school-level restorative dialogues between students and staff; course evaluations by students; and targeted staff education and training to address issues raised in the social media posts.

The School Board included a statement in the report, concluding with this statement: “We as a Board stand in unity with our students in stating that these and similar transgressions must end, and we reaffirm our commitment to building and sustaining a climate of respect, inclusion, and equity for all in our schools.”

The Portland Public Schools is Maine’s largest school district, with 6,500 students, and is also the most diverse. About one-third of the district’s students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken—a total of more than 60 languages. 52 percent of the district’s students are white and 48 percent are students of color. Approximately half of PPS students qualify for free or reduced school meals.