AUGUSTA —Only a handful of bullying cases involving teenagers make their way into Maine’s court system each year.

The top civil rights enforcer for the Maine Attorney General’s Office says he prefers educating youth to suing them, but sometimes legal action is necessary.

“We step in when the behavior crosses the line into violence, threats of violence or property damage,” said Thomas Harnett, assistant attorney general for civil rights education and enforcement.

“History and experience have shown us that, unless these behaviors are addressed, they can repeat and escalate,” he said. “We don’t want to see that happen.”

Bullying and harassing behavior among teens have been blamed for driving a 15-year-old girl in South Hadley, Mass., to suicide earlier this year.

Last week, Massachusetts authorities charged nine teenagers with various offenses in connection with the death of Phoebe Prince, who hanged herself at her home Jan. 14.

The charges include violating the girl’s civil rights, criminal harassment, disturbing a school assembly, stalking assault by means of a dangerous weapon, and statutory rape.

Bullying, however, is not technically against the law — either in Massachusetts or in Maine.

Here, teen bullying is addressed by authorities under the Maine Civil Rights Act. Of the 300 civil lawsuits filed under the law since 1992, three to four each year have named teens as defendants, according to Harnett.

“A person has the right to engage in lawful activities without being subject to physical force or violence, damage or destruction of property, trespass on property or the threat of physical force or violence, damage or destruction of property or trespass on property motivated by reason of race, color, religion, sex, ancestry, national origin, physical or mental disability or sexual orientation,” the law says.

Recently, Harnett filed separate back-to-back civil lawsuits in Kennebec County Superior Court seeking to halt harassing behavior by two Augusta boys.

In one case, a 16-year-old from Augusta is accused of making derogatory remarks to an adult staff member at Cony High School and then threatening the individual after the behavior was reported to school authorities.

The lawsuit quotes the boy as saying, “I’m going to kill (the victim). I’ve been suspended for 10 days.”

The lawsuit was filed in November 2009, Harnett said. Minutes of the Augusta Board of Education indicate that an unnamed boy was expelled from Cony shortly after the threatening occurred.

In the second case, a 14-year-old Augusta boy is accused of harassing a 16-year-old boy by repeatedly calling him by an ethnic slur.

The victim, the lawsuit says, is Asian-American. The complaint said the harassment started Oct. 21, 2009, at Bennett and North streets in Augusta, when the 16-year-old was driving a vehicle past the alleged harasser.

Both cases were investigated by Augusta police. The lawsuits ask a judge to impose a permanent injunction against further harassment.

“We don’t want this to continue,” Harnett said. “If (the defendant) violates the injunction, this can be treated as criminal behavior.”

Neither boy responded to the complaint by the time a court hearing was set, so the court appointed attorneys to represent each boy’s interests. The attorneys are due to report back to the court April 15.

Libby McCullum, the lawyer named for the 16-year-old, represents children in a number of legal settings.

“These are kids in my mind that are already hurt; they’re angry usually, probably for good reason,” she said. “They’re lashing out at the people around because they haven’t learned healthy ways of expressing their distress, but they have a lot of anger.”

Polly Reeves, the attorney for the 14-year-old, said she knows the defendant and he is not a racist. She said he is most likely copying behavior.

“It’s important to call kids’ attention to this kind of language,” Reeves said. “Often, this racial slurring is copied from other kids. This is a process that is not terribly punitive to the child. I’m happy to see that this language is being drawn attention to and that the kids are learning that there are legal consequences.”

Stan Davis, school counselor and author of “Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention K-8,” will present a workshop on bullying prevention at the Maine Principals Association Conference Center in Augusta in May.

With Charisse Nixon, an associate professor in psychology at Penn State-Erie, Davis initiated the Youth Voice Research Project. The report is available on the Internet at

They asked almost 12,000 students in grades 5 through 12 for their “perceptions about strategy effectiveness to reduce peer mistreatment in our schools.”

Some 22 percent of the students surveyed said they were victimized by peers at least twice a month, and they indicated in the survey that their most effective response was to seek help rather than ignore it.

“What works is to tell adults at home and at school, and to tell friends and to have them support them emotionally and stop the behavior,” Davis said. “Things got worse if they tried to pretend it didn’t bother them.”

Harnett, as well, said students should be encouraged to report harassment and get help.

“Our emphasis in schools is to do as much as we can to prevent these things from happening,” Harnett said. “Experience tells us that young people are hurt well before the law is ever violated.

“South Hadley, as horrible as the case is — much of what happened to her wouldn’t violate the laws that we have. A lot of behaviors we see are not necessarily illegal, but they can cause damage.

“The cases that get the notoriety are sad. It’s the ultimate human tragedy and sometimes the only time we pay attention.”


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