ELLSWORTH — Three Ellsworth High School students stepped into the world of politics and legislation when they testified to the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs on May 10. Senior Kylie Robidoux and juniors Ellie Kane and Paige Sawyer spoke in support of LD 187, a bill introduced by Sen. Louie Luchini (D-Hancock County) titled “An Act to Require Education About African-American History and the History of Genocide.” All three students are enrolled in a year-long elective course on the Holocaust and genocide taught by Heidi Omlor.
“It was actually very interesting, and I was overall surprised at how easy it was to be able to sign up and testify,” Kane said. “Now, when any bill comes out, I can just sign up and offer my opinion. Having it be easier than I expected, I would definitely do it again.”
The public hearing was held using Zoom videoconferencing, which Sawyer found less nerve-wracking. “Honestly for me, I’m very terrified by public speaking, so it was better over Zoom. Being there [in Augusta] would have been a different experience.”
An earlier, similar Luchini-sponsored bill passed in both the House and Senate during the last legislative session but died after the Legislature adjourned early in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So Luchini brought it back this session.
“It’s real important, and it’s being led by teachers and students,” said Luchini, who had earlier joined Omlor’s class via Zoom to discuss the bill and the legislative process. “I thought the students did an amazing job. They were smart, articulate. They were asked questions and responded amazingly well.”
At the hearing, Luchini spoke of a 2020 FBI report detailing the highest level of hate crimes in a decade and a record number of fatal attacks.
“It’s a truly difficult task that we face, and we must counter it from many angles,” he told committee members. “By teaching this early to students, they can learn the dangers of hate and intolerance and the perils of inaction. That’s why we believe education [in the subject] is so important.”
Kane said the class at EHS “has opened my eyes to the world around me and changed how I look at life …The biggest takeaway for me is that the key to genocide prevention is education.”
Student Annabel Johnson chose to email her testimony. The committee process “gives me more of a say,” she said. “It makes you feel like you’re part of something. Like if you go vote, you feel you have a voice. This gives you a voice.”
For Robidoux, having the committee hear from students “really gives them a better example of why actual students feel Holocaust education should be mandatory, rather than adults coming forward. It gives a better understanding of what we want.”
She testified that the Holocaust had been only briefly taught “in all my years of going to school.”
“The knowledge and understanding of how these things happen is of utmost importance,” she said. “It’s key to not letting [genocides] start.”
Omlor’s students were not the only ones testifying before the committee. Omlor, EHS English teacher Nate Cutting and librarian Katherine Hessler also spoke, as did Charles Rotwill, a Maine resident and Holocaust survivor.
“Listening to Charles’ story made me think, what would I have done if I [were] in his shoes? What would you do if a genocide was happening right here, right now?” Yarmouth student Leila Tati Pambou asked the committee.
Representatives from the Department of Education, Maine School Management Association and the New England Anti-Defamation League also testified, with the DOE and MSMA neutral on the bill and the NEADL supportive.
The public hearing was followed by a committee workshop on May 17, where members considered analysis submitted by the Office of Policy and Legal Analysis that showed that LD 187 and two similar bills would require amending the current educational requirements law, creating a new education mandate.
“The state of Maine is very, very protective of local control,” observed Omlor, who listened to the workshop session.
In a lesson on the legislative process, her students learned that LD 187 was combined with LD 1664, An Act to Integrate African-American Studies into American History Education, sponsored by Rep. Rachel Talbor Ross (D-Portland), a move Sen. Luchini’s supported. LD 187 was voted down in committee, and LD 1664 passed 11-1. But first it was amended to remove any question of creating a new educational mandate. Rather, genocide and African-American histories will be included with topics such as government and U.S. history as subjects that should be taught.
“The real difference is there’s no graduation requirement,” Omlor said.
Luchini said he is just happy to see the measure move forward.
“I care about the policy passing, not that it be my bill,” he said, then added, “It stretches beyond social studies and history. Art, music history, literature can all be incorporated. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to be creative.”
Currently, the Dept. of Education requires that Government, Native American and U.S. history be taught in Maine schools, and Luchini’s bill, along with two similar bills discussed at the public hearing, sought to add the two topics as additional requirements for graduatio