September 1, 2013

Maine's new law not last word on bullying

Educators welcome the more uniform statewide policy but say changing the culture within each school is equally important.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The days before school began each fall were often the worst for Kristen and Katherine Veayo.

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Identical twins Kristen and Katherine Veayo, 18, are seniors at Hall-Dale High School, where they say they’re no longer bullied.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Identical twins Katherine, left, and Kristen Veayo, 18, play a song at their home in Winthrop. Music became their biggest source of comfort after years of being bullied.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

They didn't sleep well. They didn't eat. They were balls of anxiety.

There was always the hope that a new year might bring change, but that hope clashed with the unnerving reality that kids can be cruel.

"It got so bad, I couldn't eat in the lunchroom," Kristen said. "I used to go to the nurse's office just to hide."

The Veayos, identical twins from Winthrop, were not part of the "in" crowd at their school -- a school they said put a premium on athletics, something they had no interest in.

But they had another strike against them, too. They stuttered. Often the only people who could understand them were each other. And that was just enough fuel for classmates.

"Sometimes, if you spoke up, it just gave them more ammunition," Katherine said.

Thousands of Maine children went back to school last week, and thousands more will begin the 2013-14 year after the holiday weekend.

As many as one in three in Maine will be bullied at some point, and the bullying will be as varied as the children themselves.

Education experts say bullying has always been a problem in schools, but technology and social media have changed the game. Now, bullying doesn't have to be overtly physical or confrontational. It can be done behind the keys of a computer or the touchscreen of a smartphone.

Maine updated its laws last year to better address bullying in schools, to add language about electronic bullying, or cyberbullying, and to give school officials more jurisdiction on bullying activity that happens outside school hours and off school grounds.

"I think this is the first year that we will actually see impact from that law," said Ali Vander Zanden, political director for Equality Maine, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mainers that worked to help pass the anti-bullying bill.

The changes have created a more uniform policy statewide and have increased awareness of the problem, but administrators say putting new policies in place is only half the battle.

James Hodgkin, superintendent of RSU 4 in Wales, Sabattus and Litchfield, said changing the culture within each school is equally important.

"You have to address any complaints or allegations because to bury your head in the sand is too dangerous," he said. "But our real goal has been to spend more time on how we want kids to treat each other, not on how we don't want them to treat each other.

"A high percentage of kids are not bullies. So how do you empower them to help eliminate that small group of students that are?"

The Veayo sisters, who turned 18 last week and started their senior year at Hall-Dale, say they are no longer bullied, but they don't want others to go through what they did. That's why they speak out.

"The worst thing you can do is not tell someone," Kristen said.

EARLY PROBLEMS

For Kristen, it started in elementary school. She used to avoid speaking to classmates. She would spend a lot of time in the bathroom just hiding.

It only got worse once she got to middle school.

She said she tried talking to teachers, but they effectively didn't do anything. After a while, she stopped trying.

The problem didn't go away, though. Her classmates continued to make fun of her stutter. Katherine sometimes stepped in to defend her sister, but that only brought ridicule her way, too.

They were often pulled out of class for speech therapy.

"Other kids always knew why," Katherine said.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Bullying

Are Maine schools doing enough to fight bullying ?

Yes

No

View Results