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Portland Schools May Hire 'Ombudsman' After Investigation Of Employee Misconduct

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Tom Porter
/
Maine Public/File
The exterior of Portland High School, seen Dec. 22, 2012.

Last summer, reports began surfacing on social media from dozens of current and former Portland Public School students alleging that they'd dealt with sexist and racist harassment and discrimination at several schools across the district. 

The messages said that staff members told sexist jokes, didn't respect students' gender identity and made insensitive remarks to students of color. In total, they named 39 current and 19 former school staff members.

Now, district officials are vowing to make improvements and possibly create an ombudsman position, after Superintendent Xavier Botana encouraged any other students to come forward with claims and brought in the district's legal counsel to investigate them.

The result is a 15-page report released to the public on Wednesday that Botana says describes the district's shortcomings in responding to student complaints, as well as its efforts to improve the situation.

"I think that any school district that truly holds a mirror up can see that there are things that they can do better, and clearly we can do things better. What I hope they see is that we are willing to do that, and willing to engage in the process of continuously getting better at what we do," Botana says.

Botana says in the report that because many of the allegations were anonymous, the district's  ability to discipline staff members was limited.

But the report notes that two resigned after being interviewed as part of the investigation, and two others received verbal warnings. Botana also met with more than 30 staffers who were interviewed to reflect on the allegations and discuss training opportunities.

"From my perspective, I think from the board's perspective, and from my colleagues' perspective, across the district, as we reflected on this, was a clear understanding that this was going to be ongoing work, and that we can never just say, 'Check, we are now great at making sure that people feel safe and respected,'" Botana says.

Portland School Board Member Roberto Rodriguez says he's heard from students of color in the district who don't feel valued within their schools, and that he was "deeply troubled" by last summer's social media allegations – particularly that students didn't feel there was an effective system for them to report their concerns.

"This, again, is evidence of the inequities that we talk about having to correct, and the lack of centering marginalized voices in our work," Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez says the district finished revising its harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination policy last year after students approached the school board. The district says the new policy focuses on training all staff and establishes clear, mandatory procedures to report and respond to any incidents.

"A policy by itself doesn't correct things," Rodriguez says. "We need to change the culture in our buildings. We need to continue, by way of professional development, by continuing to have conversations, and giving space for our students to speak about their experiences. We need to create the environment in our buildings where we understand this is part of our history, and that we all need to work together, with a coherent understanding of that history, to then move us forward to a better place."

The report lays out several other options, including the creation of an outside "ombudsman" to ensure student complaints are handled fairly. In a letter accompanying the report, school board members wrote that they "strongly supported" those steps.