Maine Republican Party questions actions of Portland school superintendent

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PORTLAND — The Maine Republican Party is questioning School Superintendent Xavier Botana’s response to an alleged hate-based incident against four black Casco Bay High School students on Jan. 27.

In a press release, the Maine GOP said it has received “numerous complaints … some even from school district employees” about a letter to the community Botana issued Jan. 29 that condemned the incident, which involved both words and physical threats.

The students involved told police they were waiting for a METRO bus on Allen Avenue after school when three other teenagers walked past and one of the trio made a derogatory and racist statement.

A verbal confrontation followed, and police now believe Jamie Hoffman, 20, of Portland, then assaulted two of the students and brandished a weapon, which police initially thought was a knife, but turned out to be a screwdriver.

Police arrested Hoffman late Friday afternoon. He was charged with two counts of assault, criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon, and interference with constitutional and civil rights.

In its statement, the Maine GOP said it would file Freedom of Access Act request with the Portland School Department to determine whether Botana is being improperly influenced by an outside political agenda.

“We have doubts that Mr. Botana is operating alone, and (feel) that there may be a bigger partisan agenda at play here,” Jason Savage, executive director of the Maine GOP, said in the press release.

He added, “We do not believe (taxpayers dollars should be used) to promote a political agenda or create a hostile environment for faculty and students.”

The request will focus “on the superintendent’s written communications with both outside and internal forces related to his political agenda and activities, as well as groups that may be influencing (his) actions,” the press release said.

The Maine GOP called into question specific paragraphs from Botana’s letter, including a reference to the “noxious environment in which this deplorable event took place” – an allusion to an executive order issued Jan. 27 by President Donald Trump that banned residents from certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

The order has been stayed by a federal judge.

In addition, the Maine GOP also questioned the appropriateness of students and faculty making signs and gathering for a solidarity march, which took place at Casco Bay High School after school Jan. 30 and was followed by similar rallies at both Portland and Deering high schools, also after school, Friday, Feb. 3.

In its statement, the Maine GOP said while the party “supports a school environment in which all students and faculty feel welcome regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and political beliefs … forcing students and teachers to give up taxpayer-funded school time to engage in a partisan agenda promoted by school district officials fosters a hostile environment for anyone who may not share the same political beliefs.”

And while the Maine GOP said it was OK for Botana “to address the crime and the potential affect it could have on the community … we feel that it would be (more) appropriate to organize this protest outside of school hours with only students and faculty who want to participate.”

Neither Botana nor staff with the Maine GOP could be reached for comment, but in prior interviews both Botana and Derek Pierce, principal at Casco Bay High, said participation in any activity in response to the hate crime was completely voluntary.

And, Botana said students were given the chance to voice their concerns and reactions to the hate crime during an advisory period, which is regularly held at Casco Bay High, not during instructional time.

In reaction to the turmoil, students at Casco Bay High, including Farhiyo Hassan, a student representative to the School Board, organized an event called “Standing In Solidarity With Our Superintendent,” scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7, at City Hall.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.