Staff Writer

Lisabeth Bataran has been waging a frustrating personal war against bullying for nearly four years.

That’s how long she says one of her five children has been taunted, punched, pushed around and otherwise assaulted by a few other students in School Administrative District 60 in North Berwick.

School administrators and other staff members have intervened at various times, but the harassment continues, she says. Federal privacy laws prevent school officials from telling her exactly what happened to the other students involved.

While Bataran doesn’t want to publicize details of her child’s experience, she also doesn’t want to wait until the relentless abuse leads to more serious injuries or even death, such as in the case of a Massachusetts high school freshman who committed suicide earlier this year.

Bataran believes schools must do more to prevent bullying, and state and local officials across Maine, including administrators in her own district, are increasing their efforts.

“We’re not going to eliminate bullying, I get that,” Bataran said. “But we need to do something before some kid goes home and hangs himself or, if he doesn’t kill himself, it completely ruins his academic experience.”

The Massachusetts tragedy, when 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself from a stairway leading to the family’s second-story apartment in South Hadley, raised national awareness.

Last month, six teens were charged with various felonies related to months of bullying that prosecutors say led to the girl’s death.

The charges prompted outgoing Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron to send a letter reminding all superintendents that state law requires them to provide safe, fair and responsive schools.

She noted various resources available on the Maine Department of Education’s website to help schools prevent bullying. They include a best-practices guide produced in 2006 by the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet, which includes a variety of state officials and others who share an interest in youth issues.

On Wednesday, the children’s cabinet will meet at the Blaine House to discuss a new initiative to increase oversight and support for bullying prevention efforts in local school districts, said Lauren Sterling, the cabinet’s program director.

And in June, the education department plans to revamp webpages dedicated to bullying prevention. They will offer staff training opportunities, free survey tools, links to related resources and networking opportunities for parents, teachers and others who want to reach out and learn more about the subject.

“We plan to look more deeply at what we can do about this problem,” Sterling said. “We have large numbers of young people in our schools who are experiencing trauma on a daily basis, from bullying and harassment.”

Reliable statistics on bullying are difficult to find, in part because many incidents aren’t reported and each person’s understanding of what constitutes bullying can be subjective, Sterling said.

Maine tracks “personal offense violations” that result in a student being removed from school, including bullying, but it doesn’t count all bullying incidents or keep comparative statistics school by school, Sterling said.

In the latest report from Maine Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities, bullying represented nine of 516 personal offense violations reported in 2007-08 that resulted in a student being removed from school. Other incidents reported in this category include threats, intimidation, assaults, fighting and personal attacks.

“I can tell you that I receive five to 10 e-mails or phone calls every week from frustrated parents who are looking for what can be done to stop their son or daughter from being bullied,” Sterling said. “It’s painful to talk with parents who feel their only option is to pull their children from public schools because they don’t feel their kids are safe.”

State law requires school districts to have bullying prevention policies.

“But adopting a bullying prevention policy and putting it on a shelf or doing something with it are two different things,” Sterling said.

SAD 60 in North Berwick includes its bullying and harassment prevention policy in student handbooks. The district updated the policy this year to include cyber-bullying, which encompasses threats, intimidation or terrorizing of students or staff members that occurs as texting, instant messaging or e-mailing on cell phones or personal computers.

“We find there aren’t necessarily more kids (bullying), but the kids who do it have more outlets,” said Daniel Baker, principal of Noble Middle School. Cyber-bullying or harassment can continue outside school and follow students home.

Baker said his school addresses bullying in various ways, from bringing in experts to provide training for students, staff members and parents, to having students create anti-bullying posters that hang in the school as part of a disciplinary response.

Last week, Baker enlisted two teachers to attend an evening anti-bullying workshop at Hanson Elementary School in Lebanon, which is part of SAD 60. The workshop was led by Chuck Saufler, a Bath consultant and community mental health expert who helped write “Maine’s Best Practices in Bullying and Harassment Prevention.”

And in September, Baker plans to have Robert Bryant, a school-violence prevention expert from Vermont, participate in the middle school’s annual open house. Bryant has provided anti-bullying programs at the school several times in the past decade, but usually they occur midyear. Bryant will work with small groups of students throughout the day and talk with parents and teachers about prevention and intervention strategies during the evening open house.

“We’re trying to set a tone for the year,” Baker said. “We need to pay attention and do everything we can to prevent bullying. But it’s like black flies — you’re never going to stamp it out. The best you can do is manage it and respond in ways that minimize its impact on students and the learning environment.”

Some people believe bullying can be stopped.

John Moody, assistant principal at Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland, said schools must create a culture where bullying is considered unacceptable and students and staff members are empowered to address harassing behavior whenever they witness or experience it.

Messalonskee is one of several Maine districts that have adopted “restorative practices” to address a wide variety of wrongdoing in their schools. The program includes weekly “community circles,” when groups of 10 to 20 students and staff members discuss a wide variety of important topics in their lives and how they feel about them.

If a student acts out against another student or a teacher, the offending student must meet with the people affected by his or her behavior in what’s known as a “detention circle.” The affected parties talk about how they were harmed and the offending student develops a plan to give back to the school community, such as volunteering to paint a fence or organizing a fundraiser.

The process requires the student to ask for forgiveness and the people harmed are encouraged to accept only if they feel the apology is sincere. The restorative approach is meant to build openness and empathy among students and staff members and create a school climate where hurting others just doesn’t fit.

“Bullying decreases when kids know each other,” Moody said. “As empathy grows, kids are less likely to pick on each other because they understand how name-calling and other forms of harassment make people feel. It digs deeper, so kids understand the impact of what they do beyond the offense.”

Since Messalonskee Middle School adopted the restorative approach in 2005-06, detentions have dropped 32 percent, from a three-year average of 406 detentions through 2007-08 to 276 detentions in 2008-09, Moody said. Suspensions have dropped 73 percent, from a three-year average of 161 suspensions to 44 suspensions in 2008-09.

Sterling, with the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet, said schools appear to be most successful in curbing bullying if leaders at all levels — administrators, teachers and students — believe it can be stopped and work against it.

“It’s hard to be nice all the time, even as adults,” Sterling said. “But it should be the standard.”

For parents of bullied children, like Bataran, time is of the essence for the victims of harassment as well as for the children who are acting out. She wonders what kind of people they’ll grow up to be.

“Every year that we don’t do something, habits are being formed,” Bataran said. “It’s becoming part of their daily lives, part of how they communicate as people. You can’t be living with daily abuse and not have it start to change you.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

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