Amara Ifeji (left)and Ijeoma Obi, who recently graduated from Bangor High School, dealt with racism throughout their high school years at the predominantly white school. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Editor’s note: This article was produced through a partnership between the Bangor Daily News and the Solutions Journalism Network, a national non-profit organization that supports rigorous journalism about solutions to problems.

After Black students at Bangor High School last month shared their experiences with racism throughout their time at the predominantly white school, school department leaders vowed to investigate and take steps to improve the experience of students of color.

Experts interviewed by the Bangor Daily News agreed that the Bangor School Department’s approach so far constitutes a step in the right direction, but they said the measures school leaders have announced won’t be enough to create a school climate in which racism is not only unacceptable, but unimaginable.

Those experts said generating grassroots support in the school for changing the culture is crucial, as well as a restorative justice approach to addressing racist behavior that focuses on helping students realize what was wrong with their behavior over a purely punitive approach.

The Bangor School Department last month announced plans to form an advisory committee focused on diversity and inclusion in schools, commissioned an outside investigation into the racist incidents Black students described to the BDN, and committed to developing a curriculum that’s more representative of people of color.

Those steps came in response to experiences Black students described, including hearing white students casually use the N-word in hallways and defend slavery and white supremacy in class discussions. Other students reported being the targets of more aggressive racist behavior: one student found “N word” painted on his car one day, and another said a classmate continually flashed a Confederate flag belt buckle at her and called her the N-word.

As far as anti-racism work goes, the Bangor School Department’s approach is largely old-school, said Wendy Luttrell, a professor of urban education at the City University of New York who studies race in schools.

“Diversity training and teacher professional development are offered in kind of a ‘check off the box, we did this’ way,” she said. “It’s pretty clear from all the research that any kind of effective anti-racism work needs to be ongoing and not just a one-off training. It’s got to be a bigger investment than that.”

Other changes the Bangor School Department has promised to make, such as developing a more inclusive curriculum and forming the committee on diversity and inclusion, are important steps and should be part of a plan to improve the school climate, Luttrell said. Ultimately, though, they are not enough, she said.

“They’re not adequate ways of bringing a whole school building and school world together around this,” she said.

Change will truly happen only when racism is treated as a systemic problem built into school structures, said Luttrell and Emma LeBlanc, a researcher for the ACLU of Maine who focuses on race in Maine schools. District leaders have to commit to examining those structures and dismantling them if needed, LeBlanc said.

To make an entire school system anti-racist, the culture at individual school buildings needs to change, and that change has to happen from the ground up, Lutrell said.

“It’s way better when it’s ground up — the teachers come together and say, ‘We have heard the students and now we need to get ourselves in action’ — as opposed to coming from the top down,” Luttrell said. “If students, parents and teachers are galvanized around changing the culture of their school, then additional pressure gets placed on the superintendent or principal level to support whatever that movement or energy is in the school building. They can’t so easily just push it aside.”

Some of that is happening in Bangor already. At a school committee meeting in late June, students who shared their experiences with the BDN presented changes they believed the Bangor School Department needed to make. They included hiring more faculty and staff of color, holding more open dialogues about racial bias, and having students play a more active role in diversity training and anti-racism work.

The school department later sent an email to parents and other school community members with the students’ list and vowed to act on their requests.

“Putting these items into actionable steps and partnering with community leaders on these initiatives are top priorities,” Superintendent Betsy Webb said. “As a white educational leader, surrounded by whiteness, I do not have all the answers. I know we must listen and learn from those with lived experiences to better understand, engage and work to positively affect change for this call to action.”

As for addressing individual students’ racist behavior, a number of school districts across the country have turned to restorative justice practices in schools to address bullying and resolve student conflicts, with research in schools in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvani a, Denver, Colorado, and Oakland, California, showing the approach can improve perceptions of the school climate and reduce the use of suspensions.

The approach in general focuses on community building and, instead of relying on punishment, directing students to make amends with each other and hold a dialogue to resolve conflicts. The approach is also becoming more common in the criminal justice system as a way to address lower-level crimes.

“With restorative justice programs, teachers and students all share responsibility for the well-being in their community if you teach them how to do that,” LeBlanc said. “So you build a learning environment where students, administrators and teachers are teaching each other how not to be racist.”

There are plenty of resources available to school districts that want to pursue this more collaborative approach to anti-racism, but it also means administrators need to relinquish some of their power so students and teachers can have a stronger voice, LeBlanc said.

In Bangor, experts say continuing to listen to the students of color who have spoken up and making sure their message is amplified and acted on is the most important next step.

When students return to school in the fall, the school department needs to take a stronger stance on anti-racism, according to Michael Alpert, president of the Greater Bangor Area Branch of the NAACP.

“In the past there have been a lot of passive attitudes in schools toward racism,” Alpert said.

“People cannot say, ‘I am not a racist.’ They need to be saying, ‘I’m anti-racist.’ Every policy, every action should be judged either as racist or anti-racist.”

Racism in schools is not an issue limited to Bangor. Students in school districts across Maine — including in Portland, Kennebunk and Auburn — have spoken out against discrimiation based on race, religion, national origin or sexuality. According to a report LeBlanc published in 2017 after talking to over 100 students, parents, school employees and community members, the same pattern of discrimination and racism was present to some degree everywhere in Maine.

“The hierarchies of school are designed to reflect, impose and socialize students into the hierarchies of white supremacy,” LeBlanc said. “So in a sense, schools aren’t failing. They’re doing exactly what they were designed to do. To actually build schools that are just as safe and equitable means dismantling those hierarchies, dismantling those structures down to the very basics.”