Bangor school committee members apologize to Black students and vow to take antiracist actions

Bangor school committee members apologized to Black students for the racism they faced at Bangor High School in a Wednesday night meeting and revealed who would conduct the independent investigation the administration announced after learning about racist incidents though a Bangor Daily News article.

Ijeoma Obi and Amara Ifeji, 18, and Kosi Ifeji, 15, were three of the five Black students who shared their experiences of white students calling them the N word and defending slavery and white supremacy in classes with the BDN in an article on Tuesday called “Racism is my high school experience.”

School committee members Tim Surrette, Carin Sychterz, John Hiatt and Warren Caruso, as well as Superintendent Betsy Webb, publicly apologized to the students, three of whom were attending the meeting.

“I’m deeply sorry you had the horrible experiences that you have that you described in the article. We need to do better,” Surrette said, addressing students who had shared their experiences with the BDN. “We have a lot of work to do and I feel like this independent investigation is a first step in that work.”

On Tuesday, Webb said in a statement that the school department would order an outside investigation of Bangor High School’s handling of the incidents.

The outside investigation will be conducted by Rebekah Smith, an attorney at Seven Tree Solutions. Smith is also an arbitrator for the Maine Department of Education. Webb said that this will not be a conflict as she conducts an unbiased investigation into incidents of racism that the administration has failed to act on in the past.

Some details of that investigation will be made public, Webb said.

Obi reiterated to the school committee on Wednesday night that she and other Black students had repeatedly reported their experiences to teachers and administrators, only to be told they couldn’t do anything and that they should take matters into their own hands. She also reminded members that their previous appeal to them demanding antiracism actions during a joint meeting with the city council in December 2019 was ignored.

“Our calls for action have been ignored for six months. We have made it clear through the BDN that there is a problem of racism and discrimination at Bangor High School,” Obi said.

“There can be no more delays and no more setbacks. There are many things that must be done on the part of educators and administrators to ensure that students do not have to experience the hatred we’ve experienced.”

At the meeting, Amara Ifeji outlined steps that the school department should take to address racism, including a more diverse administration and teaching staff, a curriculum that includes authors of color and a strict plan of action to address any incident of discrimination that students might report in the future.

“Now it’s up to you, the people in elected and appointed positions to implement these demands,” said Kosi Ifeji, who will be a junior at the high school in fall. “I will not allow these demands to die. And I will personally take it upon myself to hold the Bangor High School administration and the school board accountable for their actions.”

Michael Alpert, president of the Greater Bangor Area Branch of the NAACP, commended Black students for speaking up and asked the school to address the systemic racism that exists at Bangor High School and offering the NAACP’s assistance in addressing the problem.

“Members of the branch’s executive committee can recommend staff training facilitators and suggest other ways to help rid our schools of racial bias,” Alpert said.

The school committee also read a resolution authored by member Marwa Hassanien that condemned racism and called for action.

Several parents, including Marcella Kenny and Amy Roeder, as well as city councilor Angela Okafor, condemned the racist culture of Bangor High School.

“We owed them a safe and supportive education. We did not deliver,” Roeder said in a statement. “We are being given the chance to fix it for the students coming after them and I sincerely hope we do not squander that chance.”

By Eesha Pendharkar, Bangor Daily News

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