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

(Continued from page 1)

Today's poll: Bullying

Are Maine schools doing enough to fight bullying ?

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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

Katherine said she stopped speaking up, too, and, instead tried to make everyone around her happy.

Kristen began to numb the pain by cutting herself, a common outlet for teenagers.

"I couldn't cry and that was a way to release the same endorphins," she said.

Steve Veayo, the girls' father, said he had no idea how bad things had gotten.

Middle school often is the time when students are most susceptible to bullying behavior. Lots of changes happen during middle school years, the biggest of which, of course, is puberty.

"And they are not always the most sophisticated in dealing with peer relationships," said Walter Wallace, principal at Brunswick Junior High.

The most recent Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, conducted in 2011 by the Department of Health and Human Services, found that 48 percent of middle school students reported being bullied on school property. That dropped to 24 percent for high school students.

Females were slightly more likely to be bullied than males, although almost twice as likely to be bullied electronically. The 2011 survey found that 40 percent of middle school girls reported being bullied, compared to 22 percent of middle school boys. For high school students, 26 percent of girls and 14 percent of boys said they had been cyberbullied.

The new law that went into effect last year added teeth to existing law by requiring schools to investigate all suspected cases and to keep records of incidents. Each school also now has a dedicated "bullying czar."

"The biggest benefit is that we can track patterns," Wallace said. "For instance, if we see a large number of incidents reported in the cafeteria, we can beef up supervision there."

Wallace said educators have been taught that the worst thing they can do is ignore or minimize claims of bullying.

"Not everything falls into bullying. We try to delineate between bullying and just normal conflict, but it's sometimes a blurry line," he said.

The Veayos said they were bullied on and off through middle school and into high school. After their freshman year, though, they finally looked for a change. They switched schools.

Both girls said they have no interest in bad-mouthing their former school, but said the switch was the right decision for them.

"I'm sure there is bullying going on here, too," Katherine said. "But it seems like a more accepting place. And anytime something does happen, it gets addressed pretty quickly."

PRESSING FOR CHANGE

As Maine works to implement the new law passed in 2012, some want to take it a step further.

A bill this past session, L.D. 1233, sponsored by Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, sought to establish a separate crime of cyberbullying. The bill failed to advance out of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, but it continued the discussion.

Another area of concern is bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. In recent years, there has been much awareness and acceptance of sexual orientation in schools, but that also has given bullies another tool, said Vander Zanden of Equality Maine.

The Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey does not contain data about gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students, but a 2011 study by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network suggests that LGBT students are much more likely to be bullied or harassed.

Fifty-seven percent of Maine LGBT students surveyed said they had been bullied electronically. Ninety percent said they had heard homophobic slurs used regularly in schools.

But things are changing.

The Maine Principals' Association adopted a new policy this year that allows transgender students to participate in athletics in whatever gender they identify with. Additionally, the case of Nicole Maines, a transgender student from Orono who sued her school district for requiring her to use the staff bathroom, has reached the state's highest court and could lead to statewide policy changes.

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Today's poll: Bullying

Are Maine schools doing enough to fight bullying ?

Yes

No

View Results