AUGUSTA – D.J. Smith has been bullied throughout his school years, the teenager testified Wednesday in supporting anti-bullying legislation.

Now a senior at Mount Ararat High School in Topsham, Smith was first tormented in elementary school, when kids made fun of his high-pitched voice. It continued through middle school, when he was called a “girly man” and more offensive names.

Constantly degraded by his peers, Smith found it difficult to go to school, let alone concentrate in class.

“Worst of all, I became less than human,” he told the Legislature’s Education Committee. “Why do we not have safe schools for all our students?”

State Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland, has proposed legislation to strengthen a five-year-old law that requires school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies but isn’t universally followed, according to officials in the Department of Education.

The bill would clearly define and prohibit bullying, including via computers, cellphones and other technology. It also would require school districts to develop policies that outline reporting responsibilities and procedures for investigating complaints.

Districts also would have to establish consequences — other than detention, suspension and expulsion — that correct and address the causes of bullying — such as counseling and community service.

Morrison told the committee that he was moved to strengthen Maine’s anti-bullying law in response to recent national reports about suicides by youths that were blamed on bullying.

“This legislation would put a prohibition in place that wasn’t before,” Morrison said. “It’s sad that kids have to die in order for us to pay attention. Kids are afraid to go to school and are being denied an education. This legislation would make that illegal.”

Smith, who is gay and is president of the gay-straight alliance at Mount Ararat High, was one of three students who testified in support of the bill. He was in Washington, D.C., last week, testifying in favor of similar federal legislation at the invitation of Maine’s congressional delegation.

Smith said his younger brother is now being targeted because he’s the shortest kid on the bus. He said bullying is embedded and condoned in a culture that believes “kids will be kids” and they’ll eventually get over it.

“I’m lucky,” Smith said after testifying. “I’m one of the kids who learned to stand up for himself. It’s definitely eased up for me, but now I have to speak for the students who can’t speak for themselves. The law that we have is as weak as water.”

Katie Zema, a senior at South Portland High School, and MaKayla Reed, a junior at Ellsworth High School, also testified before the committee.

Zema, who is a student leader in the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network in Maine, said she is a straight student who has been bullied because of her political views and her appearance.

Reed, who is a lesbian and leads two school groups that promote diversity, said students at Ellsworth High have reported physical and emotional abuse because of their sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity or mental ability. The school’s climate has improved in recent years, but bullying remains a serious issue, she said.

Several legislators also spoke in favor of the bill, including Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Gorham; Rep. Michael Clarke, D-Bath; and Rep. Susan Morissette, R-Winslow.

Morissette got emotional when she testified that one of her four children had been bullied over a six-month period, causing great distress for the whole family.

“It hit me in the heart when I had to make my 12-year-old son go to school when he didn’t want to get out of bed,” she said.

When she contacted school administrators, they told her there was no policy against it and nothing they could do.

Clarke said he has firsthand experience with the worst results of bullying, after working as a firefighter and paramedic for more than 20 years.

He spoke of two recent incidents in his district. One constituent told him that her son had tried to hang himself because of bullying but was interrupted by one of his siblings. In another case, a teenager killed himself and police learned that bullying was involved.

Bartlett, one of the tallest men in the hearing room, said he was bullied as a sixth-grader because he was the shortest kid in his class.

He said, “It is imperative that we send a clear and strong signal that bullying is not only morally wrong, but also unquestionably against the law.”

Some spoke in opposition, including Tim Russell of Sidney, who said such legislation would violate the constitutional right to free speech.

“Anti-bullying policies, no matter how well-intentioned, are being perverted and used to conceal the promotion of particular programs that elevate special groups of individuals over others in our schools,” Russell said.

Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, submitted written testimony opposing the bill. Conley said the bill should define all types of bullying and include a clause protecting free speech.

Sandra MacArthur, deputy director of the Maine School Management Association, spoke in opposition to an earlier version of Morrison’s anti-bullying bill. MacArthur said that version was unnecessary in light of the 2006 anti-bullying law and would lead to “micro-management” of school boards’ responsibilities.

Morrison submitted a new version Wednesday, drafted by Mary Bonauto, a lawyer in Portland who works for Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders of New England.

The Education Committee will begin reviewing the new version of the bill in a work session to be scheduled next week.

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

[email protected]

 


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