THORNDIKE – Working together to overcome school violence and bullying was the message of an anti-bullying presentation Monday at Mount View middle and high schools, nearly six months after a student there committed suicide.

The Waldo County Sheriff’s Department did a months-long investigation into whether bullying at Mount View Middle School was a factor in the death of 13-year-old Kitty McGuire, a sixth-grader who committed suicide in late March. The sheriff’s department concluded that bullying was not a factor, but her family has maintained that it was and said more could have been done by the school to address the problem.

On Monday, 13-year-old Sylvia Small, who was a close friend of McGuire’s, said she believes the atmosphere of the middle school has improved this school year. Small, an eighth-grader who often wears a pair of fuzzy pink cat ears and has pink hair, said she was previously made fun of for the clothes she wears and the music she listens to, but that lately things have changed.

Monday happened to also be school picture day. Another student approached Small and asked if he could borrow her cat ears for his picture.

“I think the events of last year really pounded it in to people’s heads: Bullying is a problem and it can have an impact on others,” Small said.

Monday’s presentation by Montreal-based Teen Truth was attended by both middle and high school students. School Principal Cheri Towle said it was one of several initiatives the district has undertaken to foster an anti-bullying culture and give students a voice.

“I think it’s important that teens realize they have a voice inside our school walls,” Towle said. “We can have all the rules we want, but it’s really the teens that walk these hallways every day who make a difference in what happens. Their interactions with each other are what make up our school culture.”

Although bullying still happens, Small and other students at Mount View said they feel that encouraging students to talk about it is important to addressing the problem.

“It definitely happens to a lot of people, but I feel like today everyone got the point,” said Cameron Giant, 13, of Unity.

A 2011 survey by the Maine Youth Voices project said that 75 percent of middle and high school students reported hearing others negatively talked about once a week or more at school, according to the most recent data on the Maine Department of Education website. The same survey said 45 percent reported threatening with words or actions and 20 percent reported inappropriate touching or grabbing of other students’ bodies.

The project was modeled on a Penn State University research project and surveyed more than 3,000 students at 14 schools in Maine.

Towle said she believes bullying happens at every school. She said each reported incident of bullying at the high school is evaluated case by case. The district also has a policy on cyber-bullying, a required part of anti-bullying legislation that was approved by the Legislature in 2012.

Towle said about one-third of the school’s students participated in a bullying prevention group last year. The school is also developing a school spirit club to encourage school pride and unity, Towle said.

There is also a community group that includes teachers and students who are in the process of planning a community outreach forum on bullying for November. Last year there was a community forum on suicide prevention.

Monday’s presentation used a documentary film produced with footage shot by students at high schools around the country, encouraging students to make a change in their communities.

“These issues are not going away,” said Erahm Christopher, documentary filmmaker and co-founder of Teen Truth. “I think we can all relate to the pressures that teenagers face — pressure to get good grades, to please their parents, pressure from their friends and sometimes they’re not understood.”

Mount View High School and the middle school have ordered orange bracelets with the inscription “Be the Difference.” The bracelets were presented by Christopher on Monday and students will give them to each other to recognize good works and kindness, Towle said.

Teen Truth has produced five short films and is working on a sixth, highlighting issues faced by teenagers and circulating them around the country in multimedia presentations.

The film started with a news clip from the shooting at Columbine High School, where 12 students and a teacher were killed and 23 others were wounded by two students who took guns to the school April 20, 1999.

Christopher said the shooting and others since then were part of what inspired him to start making documentaries for teenagers.

His personal history was also a part of it. When he was a freshman in high school, Christopher planned to take a gun to school in a duffel bag after an older student from a different school threatened him over the phone for liking his girlfriend. Christopher’s older brother discovered the gun and told their parents, who reported the threat to the police before Christopher left the house.

“What my brother did for me that night prevented me from bringing a gun to school,” Christopher said. “I never thought about what could have happened, but I probably wouldn’t be here and it all would have been because of one phone call.”

 

Rachel Ohm can be contacted at 612-2368 or at:

rohm@mainetoday.com