Auburn school officials attempting to respond to incidents of racism and bias are now embroiled in a controversy over the way they sought to collect student feedback about such incidents.

Administrators at Edward Little High School have used the intercom to summon groups of students – including some susceptible to harassment such as members of the LGBTQ community – to the school office, where administrators asked them if they wanted to participate in anti-bias focus groups.

While school officials didn’t identify or categorize the groups during the announcements this week, some students and community members said it was clear which segments of the school population were being singled out when their names were heard on the intercom. They said the move violated student privacy and made certain students targets in a school that’s already struggling with discrimination.

“Everyone in the room knew we were called because we were mostly the openly gay students of the school,” senior Colleen Basque told the Auburn School Committee Wednesday night. She said she was among about eight LGBTQ students whose names were called.

During the meeting with administrators in the school office “we all looked at each other mortified as they said things like, ‘We know who you are and what you do,'” Basque said.

A day after the meeting where Basque and others spoke to the school committee about what happened, Auburn School Department Superintendent Katy Grondin apologized for the way the focus groups were handled.

“Everything was with good intentions,” Grondin said. “I am sorry those students felt that way. That was not our intent. We’re looking to reflect, improve and adjust.”

The district has been the focus of scrutiny since a Boston Globe magazine article this summer chronicled incidents of racism and harassment between students. It’s also in the midst of a contentious debate over how to evaluate the superintendent.

The backlash this week has caused the district to pause its work with Steve Wessler, a co-founder of the Civil Rights Team Project in the Maine Attorney General’s Office. He had been hired to conduct the focus groups as part of a long-term effort at reducing bias in the school.

Although Wessler was not involved in deciding which students were asked to participate in the groups, Grondin said the community’s reaction prompted the district to pause the work.

“It’s her decision,” Wessler said. “I wish we were going ahead because there’s always important work to be done in schools trying to reduce bias and harassment.”

Wessler, who also worked with the district last year, was called in recently to conduct focus groups with students to understand issues around bias and harassment. Guidance counselors and school administrators were tasked with identifying students who might be willing to participate and who belong to different segments of the student population, Grondin said.

On Monday, Principal Scott Annear, Assistant Principal Erik Gray and Assistant Principal Craig Latuscha met and asked the school secretary to call the students over the intercom so they could speak with them about participating in the focus groups, Grondin said.

The groups were based on demographics such as gender or sexual orientation, Grondin said.

She said the demographic was not identified when the students’ names were read. However, some students and parents said that based on the list of names read, it was easy to identify what demographic the groups were  constructed around.

“Most of the downfall of this incident was there was no privacy whatsoever and the students were called out to fix a problem as opposed to coming willingly and with privacy,” Basque said in a telephone interview Thursday.

She said the school’s actions had the affect of singling out the students and making them feel like they were on the spot to criticize their classmates for the school’s failure to address problems of discrimination and bias.

She said the groups included gay students, Muslim students, black students and feminist students.

“I think everything that could have possibly gone wrong with that did,” Basque said. “There are ways that could have been appropriate like making this open to the whole school instead of pinpointing the people you would expect to have these issues and then forcing them to be open about the horrible things that have happened to them.”

Alison Pooler, the mother of an 11th-grade student, had a similar reaction. She said her son, Dylan, had his name announced in a list of economically disadvantaged students. She said she didn’t know how the school made that determination, but guessed it was because he is part of the free lunch program.

“I was just shocked,” Pooler said. “(I said,) ‘Why are they putting you guys in categories like that?’ These kids are poor. These are special needs. These kids are gay. What’s the reason?”

The purpose of the focus groups is to help identify what’s going on in the school related to harassment and bias, Wessler said, noting he typically conducts focus groups anonymously and that students are selected by school staff who have better insight as to which students to involve in the focus groups.

“It couldn’t be me because I don’t know the students,” Wessler said. “I’m trying simply to learn what the issues are.”

Wessler said he recommends school staff talk to established groups or clubs, like a gay-straight alliance if a school has one, to find students to participate in focus groups.

Students can accept or decline to participate in the group, in which he usually will pose questions and ask them to write out the answers anonymously.

Wessler said he wasn’t involved in how the students were selected at Edward Little this week, but said he has done focus groups there and elsewhere without problems. He said he felt bad that some students, particularly members of the LGBTQ community, were upset over how the groups were handled.

“I’ve never been in a situation where LGBT students weren’t really pleased they were going to be able to talk about the issues that affect them,” he said.

The incident drew reaction from two school board members, Karen Mathieu and Alfreda Fournier, who called on the district at Wednesday night’s meeting to halt work with Wessler and investigate what happened.

“All I know is our parents were incensed,” Fournier said in an interview Thursday. “They were alarmed. The students were traumatized and now they are a target for more of that intolerant treatment.”

She said she holds Wessler responsible and that he should have had more oversight over how the school district selected students to participate in his focus groups.

However, Grondin, the superintendent, said that she does not blame Wessler although the district will halt his work for now. Wessler did not have a contract with the district, but was to be paid based on the work he did, she said.

She said the district is exploring other methods for continuing anti-bias work, including through the Green Dot Lewiston-Auburn initiative and plans for a school committee on cultural work.

Meanwhile, Basque said she would like to see the school apologize and improve methods for students to anonymously report concerns.

“Our goal is never to make enemies with the administration,” she said. “We just want to be heard and have confidence these people are genuinely looking out for us and care about our feelings and safety within our school.”

 

 

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