Lewiston Middle School teacher Michelle DeBlois works with eighth-grader Dean Palmer. DeBlois is working to integrate racial inequity awareness into the school’s curriculum. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Bates College professor Patricia Buck began this school year overseeing her students as they mentored Lewiston Middle School students with a focus on racial equality.

Bates College professor Patricia Buck

The long-term goal was, and is, to build into middle school curriculum teaching about implicit bias, ways to promote understanding, build relationships and avoid racism.

But as Bates College students started talking to middle school students about implicit bias, or unconscious attitudes and stereotypes, and how it can lead to Black students being treated differently than white students, conversations quickly turned to how Black students in middle school were more frequently called out for wearing hats and hoods in school than white students.

The work of building curriculum was put on hold as college students and middle students tackled the dress code, building a case to eliminate a rule that prohibits hats and hoods in school.

Buck said various school officials met with students to listen to why they were asking for the change, including Lewiston Middle School Principal Jana Mates, School Committee member Elgin Physic and Superintendent Jake Langlais.

“The Bates kids helped the students refine their arguments. They coached,” teacher Allston Parkinson said. “They were able to provide research information that helped,” like looking up court rulings that said clothing is an expression and protected under freedom of speech.

With help from older students, middle school students also conducted a survey asking the student body about the hat and hood ban, how students feel when asked to uncover their heads.

Elizabeth Ernesto, 14, works on her classwork at Lewiston Middle School. The eighth-grader is one of the students asking that the school dress code be changed to allow hoods and hats. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

After such a tough, pandemic year for students and teachers, Buck said it was rewarding to watch eighth-graders “take ownership and take over.”

Lewiston Middle School teacher Michelle Dubois said the long-term goal of teaching about implicit bias and about how to stop racial inequality and promote understanding, will continue next year with a student restorative justice team. If there’s interest, similar clubs may form at other schools.

Another goal will be to integrate racial inequity awareness into the curriculum, she said.

That’s especially important in Lewiston because of the city’s diverse student population, Dubois said.

“All kids need to feel safe and that they belong here,” Dubois said. “If you have inequalities that are happening, it’s hard to build trusting relationships between students and staff.”

That lack of trust and understanding hinders successful education, she said. “You’re always at odds and don’t understand each other.”

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