No charges, but debate continues over Republicans' behavior at King Middle School

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PORTLAND — The School Department will not seek criminal charges against a group of Republicans who allegedly rummaged through and removed material from a classroom at King Middle School.

But School Committee member Sarah Thompson said she will ask Superintendent James Morse Sr. to meet with school attorneys and City Manager Joe Gray to review the district’s policy on allowing outside groups to use school facilities.

The incident that led to Thompson’s request occurred during the state Republican convention, which took place at the Portland Expo the weekend of May 7.

Republicans from Maine’s 16 counties used classrooms at King Middle School for private meeting space, free of charge. When one teacher returned to his classroom on Monday, he found that a poster celebrating the labor movement had been removed from his classroom and replaced with a Republican campaign sticker.

The teacher also found a note accusing him of “propagandizing” his students, while the school received several calls from Knox County Republicans, who used the classroom, complaining about pocket-sized versions of the U.S. Constitutions donated by the American Civil Liberties Union that contained a “know your rights” section.

Thompson said her intent is not to restrict who can use school facilities. She said she wants to ensure that any damage done to facilities are the responsibility of those who used the school.

“I think there should be repercussions,” Thompson said, noting that if the weekend incident involved students, they would likely be punished.

Morse said the GOP delegates’ actions set a bad example for students.

“For me to file a criminal complaint against them to me seems like I would be sucked into the political game and it’s not a game I want to play,” he said. “I think it (would be) a waste of precious taxpayer’s money to push an issue because a group of grown-ups behaved badly.”

Instead, Morse said the GOP is paying the price in the court of public opinion.

“People are pretty outraged,” he said.

The incident has evoked a strong local reaction. Portland High School senior Simon Thompson, who served as a student representative on the School Committee last year, wrote an open letter to Maine’s GOP.

“I am not brainwashed, I am not a puppet, I am not anti-American or anti-religious, and I am certainly not stupid,” said Thompson, a King graduate. “Paul Clifford’s class taught me to think critically, to deductively reason and, if anything, to appreciate America for all the freedoms with which I am ensured on a daily basis.”

That letter went national when it was picked on MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow’s blog.

Christie-Lee McNally, executive director of the Maine Republican Party, issued an apology Monday on the party website. She said the GOP does not condone what occurred and was “deeply concerned about the lack of respect shown to the faculty.”

“Over 900 other people attended these caucuses without incident and I hope that the actions of few do not tarnish the image of many,” McNally said. “The Maine Republican Party does not condone the destruction of property nor does it encourage the lack of tolerance that these people demonstrated.”

But some Republicans are not backing off.

Aroostook County Republican Jim Cyr said his group met in a different classroom in the school and also found disturbing material. He said a bumper sticker was “proudly and boldly” displayed on the classroom wall that said “Do something nice for the environment. Uproot a Bush in 2004.”

“I was, of course, repulsed by it,” Cyr said.

Cyr blamed the media for concentrating on the removal of the poster, rather than the larger story about children “being used as pawns in an indoctrination war.”

Regardless of one’s political view, Thompson said she just wants school facilities respected when they are offered to the community.

Unfortunately, Thompson said, it appears a policy must be formalized to ensure that.

“You’d hope you wouldn’t have to do that,” she said. “But this shows you that not everyone is a grown-up.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]