Immigrant students learn hard lessons about racism at a historically white high school in Maine
Rapid demographic changes have brought racial tension to cities like Auburn. At one school, immigrant students have been documenting their experiences.
FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD Fathiya Hussein, a rising junior at Edward Little High School in Auburn, Maine, had grown accustomed to classmates using the n-word — in class, around school, and on social media. Most often, she heard nonblack students questioning why they couldn’t use the slur, and then uttering it in defiance. But, Hussein, who immigrated to Maine from Kenya at age 2, wasn’t expecting to hear it from someone she considered a friend.
In February 2018, the friend’s use of the slur on Snapchat led to an angry confrontation in the school hallway between the two. Hussein claims that her classmate tripped her and tried to strike her face — touching Hussein’s hijab in the process.
“That’s when I got really heated,” Hussein recalls.
The students fell to the floor, hitting each other. Both wound up with a five-day in-school suspension. A year and a half later, Hussein was still grappling with the incident: Why did it happen? Why were they both given the same punishment? Why didn’t administrators do more? “They don’t care about the reason” you get into a fight, she says of school administrators.
Similar racial incidents — captured in videos, contained in classroom taunts, and occasionally ending in fights — have become commonplace at Edward Little, according to several parents and 14 immigrant students, eight of whom say they have experienced racism directly. Many of them say it has gone unchecked and festered within the nearly 1,000-person student body.
Hussein’s 16-year-old sister, Fatuma Hussein, says she’s heard classmates jeering “build the wall” or “ban Muslims” as she walked through the hallway. Rising senior Omar Omar, a Muslim from Somalia, recalls classmates jeering “boom boom” and “Allahu akbar.” Administrators and students believe there’s been an increase since Donald Trump’s election as president 2½ years ago. School officials say they comply with federal guidelines for reporting harassment but couldn’t provide numbers. Amid pointed political rhetoric and a heated national immigration debate, similar problems are popping up in schools across the country — torn hijabs, Confederate flags in classrooms, swastikas scrawled on school grounds. In May, a Fresno, California, student posted a Snapchat video of herself wearing blackface and defending her right to use the n-word. In December, a New Hampshire teacher watched as two students sang a Ku Klux Klan-themed song to the tune of “Jingle Bells” in class — with lyrics including “KKK, KKK, let’s kill all the blacks.”
“We’re seeing it all over the country,” says Maureen Costello, the head of the Teaching Tolerance project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization. The group identified a bump in racist incidents after the 2016 election but expected the numbers to taper off. Instead, “the numbers are clicking up,” Costello says. In December, two-thirds of the almost 3,000 teachers it surveyed across the country said they’d witnessed a hate or bias incident at school firsthand that academic year.
This racial tension is most acute in places where historically white schools are becoming less white. “Racial discrimination is often worst in those schools that have experienced the most recent and rapid changes in student demographics,” says Emma LeBlanc, a senior researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.
At Edward Little, the number of students of color has grown fivefold in the last two decades, largely due to immigrants from Somalia, Iraq, and other countries. Still, students of color make up only 14 percent of the student body. Meanwhile, the faculty is nearly monochromatic: Only one of almost 80 teachers is nonwhite. White students interviewed for this story agree that parts of the school feel segregated, and say they’ve heard about racial incidents there but haven’t witnessed any firsthand.
Brandon Baldwin, who directs a civil rights team project at the Maine attorney general’s office, has received more reports of racism in Maine schools this past academic year than during any of his 12 years in the position. “The reports are from all parts of the state, at all age levels,” he says. In most cases, Baldwin adds, “the targeted youth have been black.” Some Mainers feel threatened by the “increased visibility and voice of people of color and immigrants,” Baldwin says. “This has led to an increase in racist and xenophobic rhetoric.”
Scott Annear, Edward Little’s principal, acknowledges the school has more to do in listening and communicating better with students of color. “We’re willing and desiring” to make changes, he says.
The conflicts that erupted between students after the 2016 election felt like a “punch in the gut,” Annear says, pushing racial tension at the school to its worst point since the arrival of its first Somali immigrants two decades ago. Following several incidents, a former civil rights attorney came to the school to conduct focus groups with students.
School officials say they’ve disciplined students for racist incidents, but the school community might not be aware of these actions due to privacy restrictions. “I totally understand the feeling of ‘you didn’t do anything about it,’” says Annear, who is white. “And we have to be better at that, plain and simple.”
Katy Grondin, superintendent of Auburn schools, stresses that district staff “works very, very hard to improve. . . . We care about all of our students.”
“Making sure our students are safe, we take it seriously,” she says.
Auburn officials must report allegations of harassment to an assistant superintendent who is a state-mandated affirmative action officer for the district. But the system they use isn’t set up to track which incidents are racially motivated.
The ACLU of Maine as well as students have called on school districts across the state to more rigorously compile and investigate such allegations. Baldwin says that when the state attorney general’s office receives complaints about schools, he advises districts on best practices, including conducting a systemic review of racial harassment.
At Edward Little, students have taken it upon themselves to keep tabs, although they haven’t passed the information on to school authorities.
TWENTY-YEAR-OLD Shukri Abdirahman, who graduated from Edward Little in 2018, is not shy when describing the discrimination she faced in high school: teachers who made tasteless jokes about her hijab and administrators who, she says, all too often failed to take decisive action after racial incidents. No one has tracked the racist incidents at Edward Little more than Abdirahman, who served as a mentor and advocate for younger immigrant schoolmates like Fathiya Hussein.
Over the course of Abdirahman’s final year at Edward Little, she interviewed classmates about discrimination they faced, recording their stories in a notebook and with a template provided by the ACLU. Because of her outspokenness, Abdirahman’s friends teasingly call her “the preacher.”
Abdirahman was 10 when she arrived in Lewiston in 2009, along with her parents and sisters. Her parents had fled Somalia’s brutal civil war as teenagers in the early 1990s. They spent 17 years in a Kenyan refugee camp, where Shukri’s mother, Hasno Omar, gave birth to eight children; three sons died before their fifth birthdays.
By the time the family arrived in Lewiston, once an industrial hub, the city’s red brick textile mills were mostly shuttered and empty. East African refugees from countries including Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia began settling in the community in the early 2000s, drawn by the cheap housing stock left when many companies — and their former employees — abandoned it. Between 2000 and 2010, the city’s black population grew eightfold, from about 380 to nearly 3,200.
Families clustered in “Little Canada,” an area on the outskirts of downtown known for its boxy multifamily homes built at the turn of the last century by French-Canadian immigrants who worked in the mills. These days, most of those houses have peeling paint and high lead levels.
Racial tensions had ebbed and flowed over the years. They increased sharply in fall 2002, when Laurier Raymond, then mayor of Lewiston, wrote an open letter to the immigrants urging them to “exercise some discipline” and to advise other Somali immigrants not to settle in Lewiston.
In 2006, a white man named Brent Matthews threw a frozen pig head into a Lewiston mosque during evening prayer. The incident heightened fear among immigrants in a community that had slowly been starting to acclimate four years after the mayor’s hostile letter. “Most people feel welcome,” Imam Nuh Iman, the leader of the affected mosque, told the New York Times at the time, “but after these incidents, not at all. Mainers have to understand that this is the new Maine.”
Abdirahman says her family encountered hostility immediately after arriving in Lewiston. She recalls that white neighbors left trash at the doorstep of the apartment building they shared with other immigrant families. White residents shouted “go back to your country” or “you don’t belong here” when her family walked down the street.
“Fear was just out there,” she says, adding that her parents prohibited the girls from walking alone. Her family was “kind of disappointed” in America, she says.
After less than a year in Lewiston, Abdirahman’s parents decided to follow a small but growing number of immigrant families by moving to adjacent Auburn; there, they hoped to find a quieter environment where racial tensions would not be so fraught. “People coming from war-torn countries run away from . . . tension,” says Fowsia Musse, a Somali refugee who directs a nonprofit called Maine Community Integration. Musse, who arrived in Lewiston in 2003, also moved to Auburn within a few months.
In the heyday of the textile industry, mill workers lived in Lewiston while the owners resided in Auburn. Those economic disparities persist: In 2017, the median household income was $48,000 in Auburn, $8,500 higher than in Lewiston. And overall, Auburn schools have a better reputation — one supported by the numbers. According to state data, the four-year graduation rate at Edward Little, 78 percent, is 14 percentage points higher than at Lewiston High School.
Abdirahman’s family found an apartment across the street from the Auburn Public Library. The rent was steeper than in Lewiston, but they covered it with help from a federal Section 8 voucher for low-income families. In Auburn, the Abdirahman girls — Shukri now had five sisters — all enrolled in public schools. Shukri, then 11, attended one of the city’s elementary schools. Hasno Omar took care of the children, and her husband worked at a Somali clothing store. Every day, he drove the kids to school and helped them with math homework. “My parents wanted better” for us, Abdirahman says.
They weren’t prepared over the next few years for how hard they would have to fight to get what they wanted.
ERIN TOWNS, A GLOBAL HISTORY TEACHER who started working at Edward Little in 2000, remembers the changes that the Somali migration brought to the school. It was “insane in the hallways” in the early years, she says. “We saw a lot of fights breaking out.”
The scuffles between white students and the newcomers often had roots in harmful stereotypes about immigrants that had spread throughout the community, Towns adds. The hostility decreased over time — only to increase again after Trump’s election. “The n-word is still problematic,” she says, adding that students tell her “it is thrown all over the place.”
Abdirahman says one incident was a tipping point for her. She recalls an openly hostile exchange near the start of her senior year when a teacher repeatedly referred to her hijab as a “she-jab” in the hall one day; he wouldn’t stop when she asked him. “He just kept poking,” she recalls. By the time an assistant principal walked up to the group, Abdirahman was agitated and crying. That assistant principal cautioned her not to “make a scene,” telling her the school needed “proof” the exchange had occurred to take any action. (Katy Grondin, the superintendent, says officials did follow up on the incident, but that she cannot provide details because of student and staff privacy rules.)
Abdirahman knew she needed to do more than complain to school officials. With the support of Towns, who advises the Cultural Student Alliance, she reached out to the state’s ACLU chapter. Staff members provided Abdirahman with a template for reporting incidents of discrimination at the school. And she began taking notes every time she or her classmates experienced racism at Edward Little; she relayed the stories to Emma LeBlanc, the ACLU researcher, and another ACLU staffer during periodic meetings after school hours in Towns’s classroom.
Eight classmates shared their stories. One told Abdirahman about a white student ripping her hijab from her head shortly after the 2016 election. And a Somali student said white classmates asked her on social media if she had been friends with monkeys in Africa.
Fearing retaliation, Abdirahman never presented the information to school administrators. But her efforts did inspire younger classmates, including Fathiya Hussein, to stand up for themselves and other students of color. “Everybody knew Shukri stood on everything,” says Hussein. “She did poetry based on racism. . . . She had a voice.”
Ajong Kwong, a rising senior who came to the United States with her family from Egypt as a child, says that some students of color don’t speak up because they “don’t want to be a burden or add negativity to the air.” (Partly for this reason, several of the students interviewed for this article did not want their stories told in-depth, or to be photographed.)
“I don’t take it to the point where I’m like protesting in the middle of class and screaming,” Kwong says. “But if something happens, I’m not going to stay quiet, because then I feel like I’m losing myself.”
Towns says that students of color are increasingly holding back from speaking out because they’ve “lost a lot of faith in the administration to follow through.”
“The ability to have frank dialogue . . . is something students are lacking,” Towns says.
That rings true to Naiv Luciano Velez, a 2019 graduate who is Puerto Rican. Luciano Velez says that last school year, she heard a white student use the n-word in the cafeteria and reported it to Annear, the principal. He pulled the student aside and chided him but didn’t follow up beyond that, as far as she could see. She wanted to make sure he got punished.
Annear says he doesn’t remember the incident. He calls use of the slur “unacceptable” but says his response, and how the staff follows up with students, depends on the context. “Was it hollered? Was it directed? Were they using it from a song lyric? That would all inform how we pursue it,” he says.
Luciano Velez says she’s tried to be the “bigger person” and tell an administrator rather than fight back. But it “didn’t feel good,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I got justice.”
IN RECENT YEARS, Edward Little has made some visible gestures toward inclusion, including posting bathroom signs translated into Spanish, Arabic, French, Portuguese, and Somali. District officials have also hired a “cultural broker” to improve communication with immigrant communities, added courses on African-American and Native American history, and expanded the English language learner program.
Yet during two visits, reporters saw signs of segregation: In one 12th-grade English class where the desks were arranged in a U shape, all the white students sat on one side, and the black students on the other. And the students routinely self-segregate at lunch.
When the first Somali immigrants arrived in Auburn in the early 2000s, “there was no understanding of stories,” says Annear, who taught special education at the time. In most cases, he adds, staff and students had no grasp of the newcomers’ cultural or religious backgrounds — not to mention the often arduous and traumatic journeys that had led them to Auburn.
Annear credits Steve Wessler, a former civil rights attorney and founder of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence, for guiding the school out of that period of intense conflict. Wessler, who works with schools and other organizations on conflict resolution, conducted workshops for students and teachers.
Towns agrees that the training helped quell tensions in the early 2000s. “We did see a marked decrease in the amount of violence,” she says. But the training stopped after five years. Then last fall, Wessler reached out to Edward Little after a surge in racial tensions. He wanted to conduct an assessment of issues pertaining to race, nationality, religion, and immigration status at the school. Administrators consented, and for two days, he conducted focus groups with students (he did not allow adults in the sessions, and did not permit a reporter visiting the school last winter to sit in on one). “There’s a lot of racial language being used and degrading jokes” at schools across the country, he says, and Edward Little is dealing with the same issues.
This fall, he’ll conduct more structured conflict resolution dialogues with the students and train teachers to lead workshops on student leadership. Wessler says of all the schools he’s worked with, Edward Little has been among the most responsive to his offer to lead workshops. And Fatuma Hussein (not related to the 16-year-old Edward Little student with the same name), who founded the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine in Lewiston and sent six children to Auburn schools, agrees. Hussein will be working with Wessler this school year to offer the student conflict resolution and teacher training in a few Maine districts.
“That does not take away the feeling of these kids who spoke up,” Hussein says. “I want them to know discrimination and bias are not going to go away overnight, and we’re working very hard. Their voices are heard, and their voices are a reminder for us to do more.”
Several students who participated last year say Wessler’s sessions provided an opportunity to speak openly with one another about topics including racial slurs and stereotypes. It can be frustrating, however, to hear some white students assert that there is no racism at Edward Little. “Even though there were three fights . . . over white students saying the n-word,” says Luciano Velez.
The district has offered sporadic teacher training on how to deal with race and discrimination in the intervening years, but nothing as sustained as the early work with Wessler. Grondin says that teachers of English Language Learners stay in touch with students and inform colleagues when problems arise. Recruiting teachers of color is “a challenge in the state of Maine in general,” Grondin adds.
In 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, less than 1 percent of Maine’s 18,400 teachers were black and less than 2 percent were Hispanic; 97 percent were white, according to a US Department of Education survey. (Maine is one of only six states that doesn’t collect its own data on teacher diversity.)
Annear agrees that the lack of diversity is a major problem. “It’s a challenge in our area to have minority representation,” he says. “I know what a big impact that has for the kids.”
Towns says many of her colleagues all over the country feel ill-equipped to handle racial conflicts in their classes. “People are very, very fearful” to bring up race and other charged topics, she says. A thoughtful training program could help them distinguish between valid topics for classroom debate (like immigration reform) and unequivocally racist views and actions (like use of the n-word). al
Auburn school district officials know they have work to do. At Edward Little, leaders of the Cultural Student Alliance asked to meet with Annear about a year ago to discuss a rash of social media videos featuring nonblack students using the n-word — and the fights, including Fathiya Hussein’s, that resulted. Three students who attended the meeting recalled that Annear didn’t seem invested in their concerns and encouraged them to brush off racial slurs, likening it to being called “a jerk.”
“He didn’t really seem too attentive,” says Shadia Abdulahi, a 2018 graduate of the school and one of the meeting’s organizers. (Her mother is Fowsia Musse, who runs Maine Community Integration.)
Annear remembers the meeting differently. He says he meant to convey that students should feel comfortable reporting any kind of insult or offense. Annear says the school investigates all fights, including the ones last year, to see if racial bias is involved. A school probe found one was not rooted in racism, though he couldn’t reveal the results of the investigation for privacy reasons, he says. Still, he concedes the administration could have been quicker to recognize the role of racist language in some conflicts. “It was real tempting for us to say [the fights] had nothing to do with race,” he says. “That’s an easy out for us.”
DURING A MAY EVENING, Abdirahman’s family gathers in their Lewiston apartment (the family moved back for economic reasons after her father’s death from lung cancer in 2013). Omar and four of her daughters share the bottom floor of a two-family home on a wide street in a quiet neighborhood. The apartment is sparsely furnished but draped in colorful fabrics. On the wall hangs a gold-and-black tapestry of the Kaaba in Mecca, a Muslim holy site.
Omar simmers halal goat meat to celebrate Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Adults, including Abdirahman, fast during Ramadan’s daylight hours, a tradition she says she loves — “it changes you spiritually.”
When Abdirahman was a senior at Edward Little, Omar says she feared her daughter’s vocal advocacy would get her in trouble. “I would tell her, keep moving forward and try your best. Keep thinking about your degree and nothing else.” Indeed, part of the reason Abdirahman never presented the list of student complaints she’d compiled to administrators was that she feared they might hold it against her. “I told [my friends], I’m not a preacher anymore. I just want to graduate, and that’s it,” she says.
At the same time, Abdirahman doubts that Edward Little would have prepared her for college if she hadn’t stood up for herself. She says she faced a form of academic discrimination based on her status as an English Language Learner and was initially prevented from taking part in an advanced “early college program” at Edward Little — even though she believed she had the required grade point average. (The school ultimately allowed her to take some of the classes in the program.)
School officials dispute Abdirahman’s account and say there’s no blanket policy barring ELL students. In fact, they note that four ELL students have participated.
ELL student Basma Zabn also fought for access to a higher-level class. Zabn, who had won many academic awards as an elementary student in Syria, has big academic ambitions. She was initially assigned to an ELL English class that focused on basic skills like fill-in-the-blank vocabulary exercises and pronunciation. It took a few months for her to persuade administrators to let her enroll in a regular ninth-grade English class. “It’s faster and more challenging, which I like.”
Abdirahman was accepted during her senior year to 18 colleges, including several in the University of Maine system and Merrimack College in Massachusetts. She chose the University of Maine’s Farmington campus, about an hour’s drive north of Lewiston.
In Farmington, Abdirahman has encountered similar hostility. “You can hand count the people of color” at the university, she says. (The school’s undergraduate population of about 1,700 is 85 percent white and 2 percent black.)
More than once, cars have pulled up beside her as she walked through the overwhelmingly white town, and the people inside them have instructed her to go back to her home country.
Accustomed to the isolation and tension, Abdirahman now shrugs it off. She’s doing well in college and plans to graduate with a degree in global education.
Her mother is not so sure that the family’s struggle to move to Auburn was worth the effort. But after a decade living in the United States, her goals for her daughters remain largely unchanged, although she’s seen how hard they can be to achieve: “To have patience, get the education they need, and stand up for themselves.”
BY THE NUMBERS
■ Many immigrant students of color across Maine face “a constant barrage of bullying” that too few administrators attempt to address, according to a 2017 report from the ACLU of Maine, based on interviews with more than 100 immigrant students, parents, and teachers.
■ Forty-one percent of black high school students reported being subjected to derogatory comments based on their race or ethnicity at or on their way to and from school, according to a 2017 Maine study put out by the departments of health and human services and education.
■ About one-third of Asian and Hispanic students also said they had been targeted — compared with only 7 percent of white students.
This article was produced by the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Send comments to email@example.com.