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Portland Board To Take Up Right of School Employees to Advocate for Political Causes

Caroline Losneck
Maine Public/file
Students rally outside Portland High School in support of Casco Bay High students on February 3.

Tonight, the Portland Board of Education will hold a hearing on resolutions that supporters say are intended to protect students from hate speech and to assure that teachers can speak freely about political issues in class. The resolutions come in the wake of questions raised by the Maine Republican party about how the districts high schools responded to an alleged hate crime.

In late January, four black students at Casco Bay High School were allegedly assaulted by a 20-year-old white man who now faces charges. Police are calling the incident a hate crime. In the following days, students at high schools across the district planned after-school rallies intended to show support for their fellow students. However, potential school involvement with those rallies concerned Maine’s Republican Party.

Executive director Jason Savage says the party was concerned that school staff were politicizing the incident and that some students used class time to organize the rallies. In early February, the Maine GOP issued a wide-ranging public-records request to the district, looking for all correspondence between central office staff, the school board, the legislature and activists in the days leading up to the rallies. Savage says the intent is to make sure that public money isn’t used for political reasons.

“When they’re using public resources that taxpayers to do their job, they should do their job. And when the day ends and they’re back as a private citizen, they should exercise those free speech rights robustly.”

However, Casco Bay High School Principal Derek Pierce says no class time was used at his school to organize the rallies. And Pierce says his staff have nothing to hide in their emails.

“I’m proud! I hope they read everything in those emails,” Pierce says. “Because I think they’ll see a community responding quickly and civilly to a wrong.”