November 14, 2012

Thanks to new law, Maine schools equipped to tackle bullying

PORTLAND – Maine's anti-bullying law gives school administrators a new way to address a very old problem, said principals at a statewide conference Wednesday.

That holds particularly true for cyberbullying, because the new law allows school officials to get involved when the impact of online bullying moves from social media sites to the school's classrooms and hallways, as it usually does, said Pat Doyle, principal of Oak Hill High School in Wales.

"The kids used to say, 'You can't do anything, I used my home computer,' " Doyle said during a briefing for Maine principals on the new law. "Now I say, 'Yes, I can.' "

The law was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Paul LePage in May. The state Department of Education is expected to issue a model anti-bullying policy for local school boards to consider by the end of this year.

Wednesday's briefing on the law was conducted by Drummond Woodsum, a Portland law firm that has several specialists who focus on school law.

Most principals at the session, part of the Maine Principals' Association's fall conference, said bullying probably happens in all schools in the state. But they offered varying opinions of the severity of the problem, particularly in their own schools.

Melissa Hewey, an attorney with Drummond Woodsum, said the law helps define the responsibility of schools and, if it's followed, should protect officials from lawsuits contending they didn't deal appropriately with acts of bullying.

"It's sort of the litigation du jour," Hewey said. "But the problem of bullying is bigger than the liability."

The new law defines bullying, saying it is an act or acts that harm a student or a student's property or puts them in fear of harm. It is also defined as conduct that makes it difficult for a victim to do well in school or take part in school activities.

Hewey said that before the law was adopted, school administrators had to see a pattern of behavior before they could define something as bullying and get involved.

The law requires schools to investigate suspected cases of bullying and keep records of incidents, and calls for staff training and the appointment of what Hewey called a "bullying czar" to oversee the school's efforts.

It also gives schools a wide range of disciplinary options, from having a bully write an essay about his or her behavior to anger management classes, counseling, community service, suspension or expulsion.

Hewey said the law tries to draw a line between bullying and other actions, such as a simple falling-out among friends.

"All unkind conduct isn't bullying," she said, so the law spells out many motivations for an act to be considered bullying, from factors in Maine's civil rights laws -- such as gender, sexual orientation or race -- to socioeconomic status or physical appearance.

Doyle said that including cyberbullying in the law was particularly important because it addressed the reality that many students' social activity now happens online.

She said that before online social media became prevalent, school administrators could usually step in before bullying became violent, because they often knew what was brewing because it happened in the school or on the grounds.

"In the old school, you could intervene because you saw it coming," she said. "It's not that way anymore."

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

 

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