Students’ voices heard, but Portland schools’ response to protests goes awry

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Officials and parents hope to get answers no later than a June 7 Portland School Board workshop to questions raised in the aftermath of two student-organized protests at Lincoln and Lyman Moore middle schools.

Portland Public Schools administrators are still evaluating what happened before and after the May 13 protests. Until then, Superintendent Xavier Botana said at the May 17 board meeting, “although we’ve begun the process and are engaging in the ‘what’s next,’ I recognize that I don’t have answers today.”

Lyman Moore protest
Students at Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland protest on May 13 to draw attention to discrimination and mistreatment they say they’ve experienced in school. (Via Instagram)

Students at both schools were sanctioned a time slot to protest what they described as discrimination by other students and mistreatment by staff of students of color and LGBTQ+ students. Videos of the protests on social media included students making claims about being victims of racism and homophobia and allegations of sexual assault.

“They called us out for not knowing how to say their names, or ignoring their pronoun choices, or for using derogatory language,” Botana said at the meeting. “They called us out for thinking that when they speak their home language, they’re up to no good.”

More than 200 students participated in the protests. Others remained inside the schools and had a study hall period.

Although the students received support and praise from some school officials for organizing the demonstrations and making their voices heard, some parents raised concerns about how the administration responded. Others have been hesitant to discuss the protests out of concern that students may be singled out by their peers for criticism or for choosing not to participate. 

Jessica Marino, a Lincoln parent who attended the May 17 meeting, said she wanted to know why her daughter was among students who were not allowed back into school after participating in the protest and why their parents weren’t called until after one o’clock.

“I’m hoping the district is going to look more into exactly what happened … so we can get an accurate picture,” she said, specifically about who made the decision to not allow students back into the building.

Botana said he’s still processing the organization and execution of the Lincoln protest, and couldn’t say specifically what went wrong with how the situation was handled.

Tim Eisenhart, a former Deering High School teacher who in the past said he left the job because of a lack of discipline in the school, said his son was involved in the protest at Lyman Moore to support his friends but called his father for support when he no longer felt comfortable with being involved.

Eisenhart said his son feared he wouldn’t be able to go back inside without facing retribution from his peers. His son told him a friend who used the time to make up tests rather than join the protest had a tray of food thrown on him and was called “racist” for not participating.

“Stuff like that happened at both Lincoln and Moore,” Eisenhart said.

Other parents, including Meg Drew, a mother of two students at Lyman Moore, are still trying to understand everything that transpired. 

Drew said she was OK with the advance notice the schools provided parents about the protests, especially since the administration did not fully know if students would follow through with the plan.

“I’m very happy that we live in a district that listens to students and allows them the time and the space to be heard,” she said. 

At the May 17 board meeting, it was clear officials were still in the early stages of figuring out what transpired and addressing complications of the day.

Botana said officials are meeting with students and planning next steps with them and school staff. The district is also expected to hold a meeting within the Lincoln community, although it is yet to be scheduled.

Board member Nyalat Biliew was vocal at the meeting about her desire to have received information about the protests in a more timely manner. “At this point I do not trust the administration or the press to explain to me what is actually going on,” she said in a social media post that has since been deleted.

Biliew did not respond to requests for additional comment.

Botana said in an email that he takes the criticism from Biliew to heart. The district is still processing everything that occurred, he said, and wants to assure students that they have been heard and that more work needs to be done to address it.

“It is painful to hear the pain of our students and to know that we both caused it and were not able to prevent it,” Botana said.

He said school officials first heard about potential protests at Moore on May 2, and about protests at Lincoln on May 9.

He explained at the meeting that the choice to give the students a limited window was so that they would return to school when the protest concluded, and to make them aware that there is often a “price to pay” with protests: in this case, if they didn’t return to class after the allotted time, they would be marked absent.

If students wanted to return after the protest but went over the allotted time, Botana said a parent would have to notify the school that they wanted their child to return to classes.

Students, meanwhile, criticized the principals of both schools for ignoring issues brought to them. Ben Donaldson, principal at Moore, was recorded by students during the protest as they accused him of “not listening” to complaints about discrimination they’d brought to staff.

Botana said Robyn Bailey, interim principal at Lincoln, took a leave of absence as of May 16. He declined to discuss her situation because it is a personnel matter.

Bailey was criticized in the past for emails she sent regarding women of color on the Portland Charter Commission. At the time, the School Board addressed the matter and the superintendent met with Bailey to discuss it. 

Bailey, an assistant principal, was appointed interim principal of Lincoln Middle School at the beginning of the school year. On March 1, PPS announced the selection of a new principal, Marisa Ayala, from Boston.

Bailey’s tenure as interim principal is scheduled to end June 30. When the announcement of the new principal was made, PPS said she would be recommended to the board to continue in the assistant principal position.