Portland schools probe dozens of sexual harassment complaints against staff while developing new policy

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Portland Public Schools has adopted what officials are calling a total rewrite of its sexual harassment policy, following complaints from dozens of current and former students.

The School Board unanimously adopted the policy at its Oct. 20 meeting, which came after a year of meeting with community partners and advocates for alleged victims of harassment.

After the process began, Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said, anonymous allegations were received from students against 40 school employees. A report on the investigation into those allegations, which included personnel interviews and the review of text messages and social media posts, is pending.

Portland Public Schools have adopted a new sexual harassment policy after a year of working with advocacy organizations and community members to draft new guidelines. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Inspiration for the initiative first came last October, when Deering High School alumna Sascha Van Etten urged board members to take a deeper look at the district’s sexual harassment policy.

Van Etten, then 18 years old, went before the Board at its Oct. 29, 2019, meeting by herself, but had audience support from representatives of organizations including Maine Boys to Men and Prevention Action Change. 

Board members were considering revising the district’s policy to conform to new state and federal guidelines at the time. Van Etten instead asked they move past “minor, non-substantive” changes and engage in a more involved process to overhaul the policy, including consulting student survivors of harassment, requiring more in-depth training for staff, and developing a “consent-oriented” sex-education curriculum. 

A School Board subcommittee was formed to tackle the issue and worked with groups such as Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, Students Speak Up, and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England to create the updated guidelines. 

“This I believe is a model of exemplary policy work,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said in a workshop earlier this month. “I’m proud of the outcome and believe you will be as well.”

The new policy is more detailed than the district’s former guidelines, which were first adopted in 1992.

For instance, the new rules define “discrimination,” “harassment,” and “sexual harassment” individually and give detailed examples. The old document only briefly defined harassment and sexual harassment.

The new policy also provides paragraphs on the definition of sexual harassment under Maine law and under School Board policy. It states, for example, that board policy prohibits “physical interference” with school activities on the basis of a person’s “gender or gender expression,” among several other bullet points.

The document also prohibits “electronic communications containing comments, words, or images” that violate the School Board’s sexual harassment policy.

Additionally, the new guidelines specify how the schools will implement a process that allows victims to report “without fear of consequences or retaliation,” and the recent updates made to Title IX under the Trump administration. 

In the midst of the district’s revision efforts, however, more than 50 current and former students came forward anonymously this summer, alleging more than 40 past and present district staff members had treated them inappropriately in school.

Botana said the situation intersects “very directly” with the new policy.

Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana.

“The allegations included references that ranged from instances where students were sexually harassed; they were discriminated against because of their gender, their gender identification or race; or belittled and were made to feel uncomfortable in our schools,” Botana said Oct. 6.

He added the allegations involved mostly high school students and staff at each of the city’s three high schools. Since that time, Botana said, administrators have been conducting “a thorough investigation” of all of the allegations, leading to more than “100 pages of text messages and social media posts.”

Botana said school officials reached out to parties who had contributed to the posts, which yielded additional information and led to several “in-depth interviews.” 

He said staff involved were identified, and the School Department’s human resources and legal staff worked under his supervision to identify claims where there was “substantive evidence” found. These were treated as personnel investigations, he said, adding the district presumed all of the staff members were innocent and afforded each one “all of the due process that is customary and appropriate in these situations.”

The remaining claims were “ruled out for disciplinary potential,” but all of the allegations were seen as “worthy of followup,” and Botana met personally with each of the individuals who made them.

The department is working on a “full report” about the allegations and investigation, which Botana said will be shared with board members in a closed, executive session. A redacted version will be made public after that. Botana said via email this week that the report is not complete, and he expects the public report will be available “around December.”

During the Oct. 6 workshop, Botana said the recent allegations further highlight why the new sexual harassment policy is necessary, since several of the allegations were brought to staff members at different times, but never “closed out.”

The policy changes ensure the district will have the necessary resources to receive, triage and monitor complaints of harassment and discrimination and bring them “to a full conclusion,” and will be needed going forward, he said.

Botana added the allegations are a reminder that every interaction between school staff and students matters. He said he was “heartbroken” to read the accusations, some of which were from students who graduated as long ago as 2012.

The new policy will strive to use a “trauma-informed response” for receiving and responding to complaints, which means creating policy while keeping in mind how trauma affects people. Prevention measures will focus on a stronger consent curriculum in health classes, as well as supporting student advocacy groups.

The policy will also help ensure students and families know how to access support and resources from community partners, know who they can disclose concerns to at their school, and how to access the Title IX process if appropriate.

It also outlines in detail a new complaint procedure, which requires, among other things, that employees must inform their Title IX coordinator or another qualified official about an allegation within 24 hours of receiving a report. Additionally, the guidelines highlight in detail the uniform investigation and “findings and appeals” process, as well as their mandated timelines.

Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend outlined the implementation process for the new policy on Oct. 6. He said it includes specific timelines for updating the district’s website and parent outreach. Botana said that process will take a “significant amount of work and resources.”

More than one community partner that worked with the School Department to draft the policy has agreed to donate grant money to fund some of the policy’s initial implementation.

Board members showed passionate support for the new policy at both meetings this month.

Several thanked Kim Simmons, of the University of Southern Maine Women and Gender Studies Department, who worked with the subcommittee and other community partners on the draft, as well as Van Etten, who sparked the rewrite with her public comment last year

Van Etten on Oct. 6 thanked board members and all those who worked on the policy for listening to students.

“We now have this really awesome comprehensive policy about a year later and I’m really excited to continue working on the implementation process,” she said.