Portland School Board weighs resolve to protect Muslim students

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PORTLAND — Reacting to what members said are continuing politicized attacks on the Muslim community, the School Board is moving toward adopting a resolution that would specifically protect Muslim students from any form of Islamophobia.

The board on Tuesday night is expected to hold a first reading on the resolution, titled “Condemning violence and hate speech, (and) expressing support for our Muslim students.”

In addition, the board is also scheduled to have first readings on two other resolutions affirming the right to freedom of speech for district employees and that the Portland schools are a safe haven for immigrants.

All three resolutions are sponsored by Jenna Vendil, the District 1 representative, and were discussed at a workshop session Feb. 21.

At that meeting Vendil said the resolutions are a direct response to a hate crime incident involving four black Casco Bay High School students, who were accosted at a public bus stop near the school on Jan. 27.

A Portland resident, Jamie Hoffman, 20, has since been arrested in connection with the incident and been charged with two counts of assault, criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon, and interference with constitutional and civil rights. He pleaded not guilty in an initial court hearing held in early February.

The resolutions address “three distinctive issues that have surfaced over the past few weeks,” Vendil said, and “outline specific commitments” the School Department will take to ensure student safety, free speech for employees and the privacy of immigrant families.

In establishing the Portland schools as a safe haven, Vendil said the board would simply be reaffirming a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 1982 that says no public school district can deny students an education based on their immigration status.

The resolution ensuring the right to free speech, she said, is based on employees “being afraid to speak out based on their personal opinions.”

Vendil also said there is “a lack of direction as to what staff can do to promote civil dialogue and engagement on current issues in the classroom,” while also stating that “the classroom is an appropriate venue to discuss these issues.”

And, with the resolution condemning hate speech or violence specifically against Muslims, Vendil said, “when students are attacked based on their religious practice we must make them feel supported and welcome.”

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana called the resolutions “incredibly important,” while also pointing out that they “express sentiment, but do not have the force of policy or rule.” Overall, he said the district wants to “create meaningful opportunities to engage around these issues.”

He also said because the city, the state and the nation are experiencing “a unique time, it’s absolutely right and necessary to single out Muslim students” for extra protections.

But, Botana also acknowledged, “We’re obviously concerned about the rights of all students. One of the things that I feel strongly about is that schools are unique places where we have a responsibility and a duty to provide a forum for tackling important issues of public policy.

“School is a place where we can take hard issues and create dialogue that’s constructive and free of bullying, intimidation and harassment. There’s nothing in these resolutions that (prevents) students from expressing their ideas and beliefs in appropriate ways.”

Anna Trevorrow, the School Board chairwoman, added, “These statements matter to students who are living in fear in this political climate. The resolutions are an avenue to take a stand and put these values on the table. It’s perfectly within our purview.”

The resolutions also got the full support last week of School Board members Stephanie Hatzenbuehler, Roberto Rodriguez and Sarah Thompson. But board member Laurie Davis had concerns that the sentiment was not inclusive of all students and all viewpoints.

“When singling out a specific group (for protection), you may exclude others. We are a diverse community in terms of political orientations and beliefs,” Davis said. “I know not everyone shares my admittedly very liberal and progressive views.”

That’s why, Davis said, she wants to make sure that “hate speech is not tolerated no matter at whom it’s directed.” She added that anyone, including those who wish to proudly wear their Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” gear, should feel safe enough to espouse those views at school.

While agreeing in general with Davis’ concerns, Hatzenbuehler also said, “It’s important for people in positions of power to say out loud that … while we want all students to be safe and have a constructive learning environment, there are times it’s important to protect certain vulnerable groups.”

Rodriguez said, “by bringing the (Islamophobia resolution) forward, we are not closing the door on taking further steps” to protect other students when needed.

“This is an opportunity to take a stance that is timely. I want this to be an opportunity to do something positive. I am sympathetic and empathetic to what our Muslim students are facing.”

Hatzenbuehler agreed, saying, “Marginalized communities need strong allyship. (The Islamophobia resolution) is the difference between saying ‘all lives matter’ and ‘black lives matter.’ I want to be thoughtful about how to best support students in the most positive way.”

But Davis argued, “I want this to be more affirmative in a global sense. What we want to do is prevent the targeting, not have a resolution of the day.”

Botana said the School Board would hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. March 7.

The resolution taking a stand against Islamophobia specifically states that “Whereas there are approximately 850 students in Portland Public Schools whose families come from predominantly Muslim countries … and Whereas, Arab and Muslim Americans, and those perceived as Muslims, are frequently the targets of abusive and discriminatory practices … the (Portland schools) condemns all hateful speech and violent action directed at Muslims (and) those perceived as Muslims … (and) commits to fostering a school environment that promotes respect for and curiosity about all religions and cultures, affirms the equal humanity of all members of the community and rejects all forms of bullying and discrimination.”

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

Hundreds of Portland students and others marched Jan. 30 to denounce a hate crime directed at four black Casco Bay High School students.