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Deering Students Sign Letter Defending School After Reports Of An 'Unsafe Climate'

Patty Wight
Maine Public

Students and staff at Deering High in Portland are pushing back against a public perception that the school has safety issues. Earlier this week, the Portland Press Herald reported that Deering is seeing a dramatic drop in enrollment for the incoming 9th grade class, driven in part by concerns among some in the community that the climate there is unsafe. But more than 120 Deering students have signed a letter defending their school.

Students entering high school in Portland have three schools to choose from, with unrestricted access to either Portland or Deering. For the past few years, Deering freshmen enrollment has hovered close to 220 students. But for the upcoming school year, that number dropped by nearly 100 students. Meanwhile Portland High, which typically enrolls around 185 freshmen, is jumping to more than 270. The reason for the swing is unclear, though Portland Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana says one likely factor is a series of high profile incidents at Deering over the span of a week last November. There were two fights, a false rumor about a student threat against the school and a medical event that placed the school in lockdown, which created temporary confusion and stirred rumors.

"So you had four days in a row of once-a-year-type incidents,” Deering High principal Gregg Palmer. “It's a statistical anomaly, but it happened. And so that created a sense of 'things aren't well.'”

Palmer agrees that those incidents created what he describes as a negative feedback loop. But he says those safety concerns are not shared by the students who attend Deering.

"The perception that Deering is an unsafe place and an unsafe learning environment is just a perception,” says rising senior Selam Desta. “It's not, like, actually what happened."

Desta helped pen a letter defending the school in response to the newspaper story, which has been signed by 124 students.

Deering is the most diverse high school in New England north of Boston, and she suspects that may be a factor in why its come under such scrutiny.

"I have great relationships with my teachers, I trust my teachers,” Desta says. “We have our student resource officer on campus. It's not an unsafe environment. I've never come to school and worried about my safety."

Jennifer Wriggins, who is active in the Deering High PTO and is a parent of two seniors, one at Deering and one at Portland High, says feels both schools are equally safe.

"Both schools have been great for my kids, and are wonderful institutions," Wriggins says.

Though Superintendent Botana is heartened by the rally of support in the Deering High community, he is concerned about the lopsided shift in enrollment. He says the district has issued a survey to students and parents of the incoming freshmen class to understand what influenced their decision in selecting a school. The results of that survey will be presented to the school board in the fall.

Originally published Aug. 7, 2019 at 5:42 p.m. ET.