An ACLU of Maine report found widespread harassment of immigrant students. To read the report, go to: www.aclumaine.org/en/publications/report-we-belong-here.

Hateful insults in halls, being marginalized by teachers in classrooms and having their hair pulled as they walk by are some of the ways immigrant students in Maine schools are bullied and harassed, according to a report released Tuesday.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine study was undertaken not to start legal action against schools “but to raise awareness” and spark community discussions, said Rachel Healy, director of communications for the ACLU of Maine.

Under Maine law, schools have a moral and legal obligation to ensure all students have the right to attend public schools that are safe, secure and peaceful, the ACLU pointed out.

But the report, titled “We Belong Here,” found “widespread” racial harassment across Maine by other students, teachers and adults.

Examples of discrimination in the report include:

* Black students being called the “n” word and teachers doing nothing about it;

* Students who told other students to “go back to Mexico;”

* Muslim girls told they couldn’t play soccer until they removed their headscarves;

* Students who said if they asked educators for help, teachers suggested the class was too hard and they drop it;

* Parents who said bus drivers refused to pick up their children or complained their children had bad attitudes and smelled bad.

All of that is illegal and alarming, according to the report.

“No person, and certainly no child, should feel as vulnerable, excluded and victimized as many immigrant students in Maine described feeling on a regular basis,” according to the report.

The report also found that black students are more likely to experience suspensions, expulsions, punishments and referrals to police than white students for the same behavior, and that black students disproportionately aren’t enrolled in enriching programs such as gifted and talented classes.

“We Belong Here” also highlighted successful, ongoing school programs that help immigrant students experience academic success. Among those were Lewiston High School’s 21st Century Leadership program led by Jenn Carter.

Research for the report largely focused on districts with numerous English Language Learner students: Auburn, Bangor, Belfast, Biddeford, Calais, Gardiner, Gorham, Lewiston, Portland, South Portland and Westbrook.

The report’s author, Emma Findlen LeBlanc, said in an interview Tuesday that her findings were based in part on 115 interviews with students, parents and educators from January through this past school year.

Of those 115 interviews, 30 were with students and parents in Lewiston-Auburn; half were students, half were parents, she said. The majority were in Lewiston, she said.

While Portland and Lewiston schools have the highest numbers of immigrant students, the harassment problem is statewide, LeBlanc said.

“We found schools with very small percentages that have problems,” she said. Immigrant students in those schools are isolated and lack specialized programs to help them, she said.

And, she said, students interviewed across Maine who gave examples of harassment were asked how frequently discrimination occurs. “From their stories we felt comfortable” concluding harassment was widespread and on a regular basis, LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc declined to offer examples of discrimination in Lewiston schools to avoid identifying students. And, she added, the report doesn’t seek to single out Lewiston or any district because discrimination is statewide.

Concerns about Lewiston schools are that too many students of color face suspensions; too many immigrant students don’t have access to meaningful programs; and Lewiston has few if any teachers of color, denying immigrant students a chance to learn from adults with similar backgrounds.

The ACLU report provides tools for communities to help immigrant students and parents “start advocating for themselves,” Healy said.

Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster said he was pleased that the ACLU released its findings and recommendations “in a way that will encourage reflection and changes in Maine schools.”

Webster shared the report with School Department employees and the School Committee on Tuesday. It’s positive, he said, that the ACLU is offering communities tools to improve cultural environments.

“Some of the recommendations are already in place in Lewiston schools, some are in progress and others have not yet been implemented,” Webster said.

Webster said Lewiston has six teachers of color, plus 40 educators of color including education technicians, language facilitators and substitutes.

“We do seek to increase all these numbers and are working with the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College on a program to expand teachers of color,” he said.

Immigrant youth in Maine

Maine is among the whitest states in the U.S. The 2010 Census recorded 95.2 percent of Maine population as white. Maine has also been a state with a dwindling population, the oldest state with more deaths than births each year.

But Maine’s immigrant population is growing, with nearly 45,000 Mainers who were born outside the United States.

In 2015-16, nearly 10 percent of students in Maine were nonwhite; 7,181 students spoke a language other than English at home.

In parts of Maine, some cities, neighborhoods and schools are becoming highly diverse. In Lewiston, nearly 10 percent of residents are Somali; in Portland, 17 percent of residents are nonwhite.

Two schools that have among the highest nonwhite or immigrant populations are Lewiston’s Longley Elementary School, where the student population is 75.5 percent nonwhite, and Portland’s Riverton Elementary School, which is 62 percent nonwhite.

Source: ACLU’s “We Belong Here” report

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