2017-11-23 / Front Page

Aim: Bring community and ‘language learners’ together

Emails hint of bullying and communication with ACLU of Maine
By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer


Members of the Biddeford Civil Rights team attended Biddeford Rising’s first event to support the community’s newest members. The team’s goal is for everyone to feel safe and welcomed in the schools. From left, Shari Brinkman, faculty advisor for the civil rights team, Jodi Coleman, Jordina Coleman, both team members and attendee Becky Izzard. (Grant McPherson photo) Members of the Biddeford Civil Rights team attended Biddeford Rising’s first event to support the community’s newest members. The team’s goal is for everyone to feel safe and welcomed in the schools. From left, Shari Brinkman, faculty advisor for the civil rights team, Jodi Coleman, Jordina Coleman, both team members and attendee Becky Izzard. (Grant McPherson photo) BIDDEFORD – School department staff want to increase communication between new families and school faculty to make everyone in the community feel welcome, as many confront a difficult transition.

Officials held the inaugural Biddeford Rising gathering Wednesday, Nov. 15 at John F. Kennedy School. The event was open to the public and intended to bring together migrant, immigrant and refugee families with school staff and students. About 100 people attended to share and listen to stories of making Biddeford into their new home. Translators from Catholic Charities moderated the event.


High rent, school lunches, public transportation and lack of information were all issues raised at the first Biddeford Rising meeting. However, parents noted that their children were learning English well. From left, Veronica Foster, faculty mentor for the Biddeford High school Civil Rights Team, Sara Gassab, sophomore at BHS and high school Assistant Principal Elias Fletcher. (Grant McPherson photo) High rent, school lunches, public transportation and lack of information were all issues raised at the first Biddeford Rising meeting. However, parents noted that their children were learning English well. From left, Veronica Foster, faculty mentor for the Biddeford High school Civil Rights Team, Sara Gassab, sophomore at BHS and high school Assistant Principal Elias Fletcher. (Grant McPherson photo) Assistant Superintendent Chris Indorf welcomed attendees and invited staff and families to sit together at tables and discuss what was going well for new community members and what needs improvement. After a period of discussion, findings from several smaller groups were shared with everyone. Responses were largely positive, but many noted the language barrier and lack of public transportation as major concerns.

“We have a lot to learn but we want to learn more and reinforce what works well,” Indorf said. “More than half of York County’s English language learners attend Biddeford schools. We want to ensure these students succeed in learning and a big component of that is supporting their parents and learning firsthand what their needs may be. We hope the community will rally around this effort and join us to learn more about their cultures.”


Assistant Superintendent Chris Indorf, helped coordinate the inaugural Biddeford Rising event. Indorf said the population of students born outside the U.S. in Biddeford has risen 400 percent over 10 years and 200 percent in the last three years. As supervisor of the English language teachers, Indorf said he wants to do more for new students. (Grant McPherson photo) Assistant Superintendent Chris Indorf, helped coordinate the inaugural Biddeford Rising event. Indorf said the population of students born outside the U.S. in Biddeford has risen 400 percent over 10 years and 200 percent in the last three years. As supervisor of the English language teachers, Indorf said he wants to do more for new students. (Grant McPherson photo) Biddeford School Department has more than 200 English language learners from almost 20 countries, half of whom speak Arabic. The next four most common languages spoken are Swahili, French, Spanish and Kinyarwanda, the last of which is spoken in Rwanda. The school department has eight English language teachers, with two more in the budget for next year. Four years ago the school department employed three. Indorf supervises the English language teachers and said finding qualified help can be difficult, but that school staff want to do more.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine released a report in October titled, “We Belong Here: Eliminating Inequity in Education for Immigrants and Students of Color in Maine.” Copies of the report were available at the Biddeford Rising event. The 52-page report is a compilation of 115 interviews of students, teachers and parents across the state, from Biddeford to Calais. The interviews were concentrated in schools with many English language learners and non-white students. American Civil Liberties Union staff also focused on schools they deemed needed special attention based on outreach from students.

The report found that discrimination and harassment were common throughout Maine. Students call their Muslim peers terrorists. Black students are more likely to be suspended than white students. Immigrant students are told to, “go back to Mexico.” Ultimately, students who faced discrimination felt that administration staff was not aware of the culture of abuse that was accepted in many schools.

The report is available on the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine website and offers a series of recommendations for educators on how to address the issues. The report condemned the harassment it found and also encouraged readers to do better.

“No person, and certainly no child, should feel as vulnerable, excluded and victimized as many immigrant students in Maine described feeling on a regular basis,” the report stated. “But there is reason to hope. Our conversations with immigrant families were a reminder of the strength and resilience of young people, and the unceasing love and dedication of parents. They shared their challenges and successes in the hope that this report might be the foundation of a better experience for all students in Maine.”

While the American Civil Liberties Union’s investigation reached across the state, specific districts were not named to protect those who spoke.

“We have decided not to name school districts in our overview of discrimination,” the report stated. “In order to protect the anonymity of the students who spoke with us and to underline the representative rather than exceptional nature of the cases we highlight.”

In an email obtained through a Freedom of Access Act request that dates back to June, Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray wrote of an alleged incident in which a student’s hijab was pulled from her head. Ray wrote to Emma LeBlanc, a senior researcher for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, in May and expressed concern over the organization’s initial approach with the school department.

“You brought forth as-of-yet unsubstantiated claims from unnamed sources and drew the conclusion that the administration had given ‘tacit approval’ to a ‘culture of intolerance,’” Ray wrote. “We are not perfect, but we should be judged by the whole body of our work, not the alleged failure to act on a case of vandalism, pulling of a hijab, or bullying.”

In a phone interview, Ray wouldn’t clarify if the alleged incident took place or what disciplinary action, if any, had been taken. However, Ray said the American Civil Liberties Union’s report is beneficial to providing a welcoming place for students.

“We talk with students all the time about any experience they have at school, no different from any other incident,” he said. “We’ve had training from Spurwink and Sweetser. We’re always looking at programs to change culturally here as a community.”

LeBlanc responded to Ray’s email from May and wrote that her job was to investigate students’ reports of bullying.

“My intention was simply to discuss with you some serious cases of bullying and bias that have come to my attention, and demand more urgent action,” she wrote. “If my tone was serious, that’s because these are serious matters. Having had ongoing conversations with students, teachers, parents and community leaders in Biddeford over the past months, I have no doubts about the veracity of students’ allegations.”

Biddeford High School Principal Jeremie Sirois wrote to LeBlanc in May as well that he was surprised to learn of bullying that had taken place.

“I know these students very, very well,” he wrote. “But I’m just not sure who would be dealing with these issues. I see most of the kids every day and talk with them in the hallways so this is all a bit of a shock to me. I’ve developed good relationships … and thought they would be comfortable talking to me if and when issues come up.”

Ray attended Biddeford Rising and said he enjoyed hearing from new families and students about their experiences in Biddeford.

“I thought it was a very impressive turnout,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect. It was great for the school department to sit and interact with new Mainers so we can continue to do a better job educating kids. It was really designed to be a reflective piece for everyone.”

The next Biddeford Rising meeting will take place 5 to 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 14, location to be determined.

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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