The Maine Human Rights Commission has found reasonable grounds to believe that the Brunswick School District discriminated against a former student who was bullied for 2½ years on the basis of his perceived sexual orientation.
The commission’s 3-2 ruling, issued Monday, adopts the findings of a 14-page investigative report that was done after the boy’s mother filed a complaint against the school district.
“Finally being heard by the commission and just knowing that someone is finally listening to him has been helpful,” she said.
Although the mother is named in the complaint, her son is not. The Portland Press Herald is not naming either of them to protect the family’s privacy.
In a written statement, Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said administrators at Brunswick Junior High School took the complaints seriously and acted quickly.
“We are extremely disappointed in the 3-2 vote (Monday) and wholeheartedly disagree with the decision,” said Perzanoski. He said the district will continue to review its bullying response procedures and also continue schoolwide assemblies, staff trainings and peer mediation. He did not return calls seeking additional comment.
Next, the parties will engage in a mediation procedure with the rights commission. But it’s possible that if the talks break down, a lawsuit could follow.
The family first filed the complaint on behalf of the boy, a student at Brunswick Junior High from 2010 to 2012, saying that he had been harassed physically and verbally for 2½ years, “teased for having ‘man-boobs’ and called gay,” and faced constant disparaging remarks about his weight, appearance and lack of athletic ability. The boy reported the incidents to his teachers, but the behavior continued, the report said.
According to the report, Brunswick School District officials said they investigated all the incidents that were reported and took several measures to prevent more incidents, including adopting anti-bullying policies, sponsoring “stand up to bullying” activities and providing training to staff.
The officials also noted that the school had received local and national attention for its efforts to combat bullying and harassment. In January 2013, the school’s plan for responding to bullying was posted on the state Department of Education’s website as a model for other schools on how to address bullying.
School district officials did not deny that the boy was teased, but said it was not based on his perceived sexual orientation or sex. Chief investigator Victoria Ternig, an attorney assigned by the rights commission to investigate the case, disagreed.
“The facts show that there were several incidents that occurred which could be identified as relating to the Minor’s perceived sexual orientation and/or his fitting into stereotypes about males (sex),” she wrote in the report. “Looking at the totality of the incidents that occurred, they are pervasive.”
Ternig also wrote that the verbal and physical harassment unreasonably interfered with the student’s educational environment.
Although the school did take corrective actions and had good policies in place to combat bullying, “it did not do enough in this instance,” Ternig wrote.
“Due to the number of incidents that occurred,” she wrote, “it is sensible to think that (the district) should have honed in on that fact to see if there was a bigger issue instead of handling each incident on a case-by-case basis for more than 2½ years.”
The boy was hospitalized and diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of the bullying and harassment, said Courtney Beer, an attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which represented the family. The boy stopped attending Brunswick Junior High in October 2012, and his mother said she moved out of the school district so he could transfer to another school.
“We are so thankful that the commission was able to sort out fact from fiction,” the boy’s mother said in a written statement. “It is unfortunate that it took filing a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission to get the attention of the Superintendent’s Office. ”
THE DAMAGE BULLYING CAN DO
Research has shown that bullying in general, and incidents where students are targeted because they are believed to be gay or bisexual, start early and can have a devastating impact
Nationally, about 20 percent of high school students and 40 percent of middle school students who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender report having been the victim of physical assault based on their sexual orientation, either real or perceived, said Sarah Holmes, co-chair of the Southern Maine chapter of GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, which is based in New York.
“You’re talking about six to eight years of middle school and high school, when they’re not able to concentrate in school, be involved in activities, and are fearful every day that something bad is going to happen, whether it’s name-calling or some sort of physical assault,” Holmes said. “It interferes with the ability of the student to stay in school and be successful.”
One of the most effective measures is to have some sort of gay-straight-transsexual alliance for students, she said. About 40 percent of high schools in Maine have such clubs, she said, but middle schools have been slower to adopt them.
“Having a school club that students and allies can join provides a safe space for LGBT students and some visibility,” she said. “Even if LGBT students never go to the club meetings, knowing that such a club exists means a great deal because it shows that they’re not alone.”
Donald L. Patrick, director of the Seattle Quality of Life Group at the University of Washington, said that being harassed at a young age can increase the odds of depression and consideration of suicide.
“This is a major issue,” he said. “They’re at a very impressionable age, where self-esteem and self-identity are formed. They need the encouragement that ‘you’re OK,’ whether you’re gay or not. I think there’s enough data to indicate that school policy has to be very strong not to permit this at all.”
RIGHTS COMMISSION TO MEDIATE
Locally, officials have stepped up efforts to protect students from bullying. Maine updated its laws in 2012 to better address bullying in schools, to add language about cyberbullying, and to give school officials more jurisdiction over bullying that occurs outside school hours. The law required schools to investigate all suspected cases of bullying and to keep records of the incidents. Schools also now have dedicated “bullying czars.”
In 2013, the Maine Principals’ Association adopted a policy that allows transgender students to participate in athletics in whatever gender they identify with.
“Maine principals and assistant principals, individually and collectively, certainly want schools to be a safe place for all students,” said Richard A. Durost, the association’s executive director.
The Maine Human Rights Commission does not have legal authority to issue an order requiring the school district to pay financial damages, or to issue an injunction. Parties litigate their disputes before the commission because a complainant is required to “exhaust administrative remedies” before going to court to seek damages, said Amy Sneirson, executive director of the commission. This is intended to decrease the burden of filings on the court system.
Jean Kelleher, president of the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies, which represents roughly 150 municipal agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada, said groups like the Maine commission are increasingly getting involved in bullying cases. Some agencies are contending with individual complaints, while others are collaborating with schools and community leaders on prevention.
“Many state statutes don’t include sexual orientation as a basis for discrimination or harassment, but that’s changing, too,” said Kelleher, an attorney and director of the Alexandria (Virginia) Office of Human Rights.
In the Brunswick case, the family and the school district now have 90 days to enter a conciliation process, a type of mediation with the commission, said Sneirson.
In a conciliation agreement, the commission could seek policy changes for the district, training for district employees or students, or a promise from the school district not to allow a hostile educational environment to persist.
If talks break down, the family then has 90 days to file a lawsuit against the school district in either state or federal court.
The student’s mother said she hopes other parents will fight back against bullying incidents.
“I wish more parents would stick with it and push through road block after road block,” she said. “You’ve got to keep fighting for your kid. If something is not right, don’t let it go, if not for your child, then for all the others.”
Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.
Jennifer Van Allen can be contacted at 791-6313 or at: