Gray-New Gloucester Middle School Teacher Ann Cook’s politically charged conversation with an 8th grader, first reported on by The Maine Wire, was unacceptable and unkind, MSAD 15 School Board Chairman Sam Pfeifle said Monday.
“I’m disappointed,” Pfeifle said in a phone interview. “It’s clearly unacceptable for a teacher to be saying those things to students in their classroom. It doesn’t follow our controversial topics policy. I don’t think it follows our mission. I don’t think it’s kind.”
“We try to lead with love and kindness,” Pfeifle said.
Pfeifle said that due to privacy laws the district can’t always be fully transparent regarding any actions taken against its employees. However, following conversations with the district superintendent and the school’s principal, he’s satisfied with how the district handled the case.
“I’m satisfied that our administration followed all the policies,” he said.
In the conversation, which was secretly recorded by a student, Cook attacked former President Donald Trump and labeled his supporters, including the child’s father and stepfather, uneducated. She also made several questionable or inaccurate claims about President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
The recording emerged as public schools in Maine face heightened criticism over what role, if any, left-wing theories about gender, politics, and race should play in government-run schools.
Gray-New Gloucester Middle School Principal Rick Riley-Benoit responded to an email seeking comment, confirming that the audio recording was a teacher at his school and that he’d discussed the matter with the child’s parent following his complaint.
“As per our policy regarding parent complaints, I met with the teacher privately to discuss the parent’s concern,” Riley-Benoit said. “I also reviewed the MSAD 15 policy IMB: Teaching About Controversial/Sensitive Issues. I believe the teacher and I came to an agreement on expectations.”
“I trust our teachers are thoughtful in monitoring their own subjectivity in conversations with students,” he said.
According to MSAD 15’s policy on the teaching of controversial topics, teachers are allowed to inform parents if they are going to teach on a controversial topic.
“The school district values providing young people the opportunity to think critically and dig deeper into exploring values and attitudes towards controversial and sensitive topics with thoughtfulness and respect for others,” the policy says.
“The teaching and learning should be scholarly and objective in its approach with a minimum emphasis on opinion and a maximum emphasis on facts and critical thinking,” it says.
Pfeifle and Riley-Benoit both confirmed that Cook will remain a teacher in the district.
“Because this is a personnel matter, I cannot comment on specific details,” Riley-Benoit said in an email Monday.
“What I can say is that we take the appropriateness of interactions between our staff and our students very seriously. When we investigate and verify concerns in this area, we take appropriate steps to address such matters,” he said.
Regarding the parents of the child who took the recording fearing that their child would be targeted for recrimination if they shared the audio with news media, the principal said those concerns had never been brought to him.
“[W]e have policies and procedures in place that prohibit retaliation against parents/students who raise legitimate concerns, and we follow them,” he said.
State Rep. Amy Arata (R-New Gloucester), whose district includes the middle school, sent a letter to school officials Monday. In that letter, Arata called for an investigation into the students claims that Cook discussed her own sexuality and students’ sexuality with the 8th grader.