Three candidates are vying for an at-large seat on the Portland Board of Public Education, with two of the three saying the issue of police in schools was a motivating factor in why they’re running.
The election to be held Nov. 3 includes Nyalat Biliew, a Deering High School alum and recent graduate of the University of Southern Maine; Stacey Hang, a school nurse with two children in Portland schools; and Yusuf Yusuf, a mental health case manager who has worked with Portland students and their families.
The three are competing to replace Mark Balfantz, who is not seeking re-election after serving one term. Candidates in all three contested school board elections this cycle have cited the school resource officer issue that came before the board this past year as a reason they’re running.
Biliew, 25, is a first-generation immigrant who was born in Ethiopia but whose family is from South Sudan. She said the discussion about removing police from Deering and Portland high schools gave her hope the district might move in the right direction toward combating racism and anti-blackness in schools.
“I found the content matter to be very emotionally challenging, which led me to many tears as it had brought back the personal experiences of racism and trauma that I had endured and have been silenced for as a student,” Biliew said, describing a school board meeting where SRO’s were being discussed.
She said as a student she witnessed an SRO putting a student in a chokehold as a means of breaking up a fight, and witnessed an SRO arrest a high school student over a fight. Biliew also said she felt silenced during the SRO discussion after trying to bring up concerns about a former officer and being told she could not name or talk about staff members.
“I want to further represent and reflect experiences of the kids that don’t get the space to go to a school board meeting and get their concerns heard or even have their parents be able to go to a school board meeting and have their concerns heard,” she said.
Hang, who works as a school nurse in a neighboring school district, said she is also running after getting involved in the SRO conversation. Hang, 44, said she is “personally very pro-SRO” and has been asking for years to get one at the school where she works.
She said the board should have taken more time and gathered more information on the issue. “I felt like it was a knee-jerk reaction to the political stuff that’s happening in the world,” Hang said. “I don’t think politics belong in schools and I felt like, maybe we need to think through this a little more before we eliminate a position.”
Hang also responded to a statement she made in a Facebook post during the SRO debate in which she questioned the Black Lives Matter movement and said it is a “leftist political agenda” raising money for the Biden campaign.
“Black Lives Matter in that context was making demands to the city as a political organization or it felt like it was coming from a political side, and I don’t think politics belong in schools,” she said.
Yusuf Yusuf, 40, is the third candidate in the race. Unlike Billiew and Hang, Yusuf did not mention SROs as a reason he decided to run, but said he supported the decision to remove them because some students had voiced concerns.
“If you ask me personally I was for (removing them) but this is already done,” Yusuf said. “I’m glad the school board made the decision. We are a democracy and that’s what I like. When something is voted on it’s legally binding and we move on.”
A Somali immigrant who came to the United States in 2007 and Portland in 2016, Yusuf said he is running because of his experience working with Portland students and their families as a mental health case manager and helping new immigrants navigate the school system. He is also a certified Somali translator and speaks some Arabic.
If elected, Yusuf said his goals include closing the opportunity gap for minority and immigrant students and those living in poverty and implementing universal pre-K.
“I want to give back to the community and to the city that I love and will make sure I work collaboratively with the superintendent, the school board, district leadership and the community at large,” Yusuf said. “As a mental health worker I understand hardship at home, what it looks like and how it impacts students and their behavior.”
Hang said while the SRO issue was what motivated her to run, there are other more pressing issues facing the board right now, including how COVID-19 will impact schools financially and the superintendent’s proposal to reconfigure the mainland elementary schools.
“I’m very passionate about my city and I really care about the whole child,” Hang said. “I would be very thoughtful in my process of how I would handle any decisions as a school board member.”
Biliew said she wants to draw on her experience as an immigrant and English language learner to be an advocate for students and immigrant families. “There’s a huge gap with immigrant families and their involvement in the schooling or education of their kids,” she said. “That’s something I really want to focus on is trying to find ways for the school board to involve these parents and ensure they know and understand what their kids are learning.”
Other issues Biliew wants to work on include making sure students and teachers have the resources they need to get through the COVID-19 crisis, including food assistance and tutoring, racial disparities and discipline practices, and figuring out ways to create more diversity in the books and materials students have.
“I feel like I know a lot of places within the school system that the school board can really create realistic change,” Biliew said. “They can make an effort to do that if they had someone who’s gone through those experiences to point that out.”