WESTBROOK – In the short span of a week, Westbrook High School junior Victoria Pabst has gone from an ordinary student to one who has initiated a nationwide, if not global, discussion on the problems of school bullying.

Last week, Pabst, 16, went public with her experience with bullying at the high school and her frustration at what she saw as a lack of a response from the school. She posted a letter about her experiences that she originally wrote to school administrators on the Internet and spoke to news reporters about her story.

Pabst said she has received support from her friends at the school, as well as her teachers, but it goes much further than that. Thanks to the widespread reach of the Internet, Pabst’s story has struck a chord with a very wide audience – she said she has received notes of support from all over the United States and as far away as Australia.

“It’s been crazy, but it’s been good,” she said.

“She’s just been getting an amazing amount of letters and emails,” said her mother, Terri Pabst. “It’s opened up a lot of people’s hearts and brought a lot of emotion.”

Pabst’s revelations also have spurred the Westbrook School Department to make sure it is doing all it can to curb bullying and harassment. In a written statement published in this week’s American Journal, School Superintendent Marc Gousse said that Pabst’s letter should serve as “a call to action” for the school to address this issue.

“It is our responsibility as educators, administrators and school staff to be role models for our students and to embrace this opportunity which has been so eloquently put forth to us by not only one of our students, but also by the local media,” Gousse wrote. “It is a call to action and we will not shirk our responsibility to address this community issue.”

The school department does have an anti-bullying policy in place, one that defines bullying as “any physical act or gesture or any verbally, written, or electronically communicated expression that a reasonable person should expect will have the effect of: physically harming a student or damaging a student’s property; placing a student in reasonable fear of physical harm or damage to his/her property; or substantially disrupting the instructional program or the orderly operations of the school; or is so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it creates an intimidating, hostile educational environment for the student who is bullied.”

The policy says that incidents of bullying should be reported to school staff or administration. Students responsible for bullying are subject to discipline according to school policy, though it does not outline a specific punishment.

“I’m confident in the policies that we have in place,” said Gousse on Tuesday.

He said Pabst’s concerns have been investigated “at all levels” of the school department. “But more importantly, policies are great, but where the rubber meets the road is procedures and action and that has been reviewed.”

School Committee Chairman Ed Symbol said that he expects that the committee will be reviewing the school’s bullying policy in light of the issues raised.

“As a school board and a district, there’s some accountability for us,” he said. “I think it’s a work in progress.”

“This is certainly an opportunity to look within and get better at what we do,” Gousse said. “If we don’t have an environment or culture that’s safe, either real or perceived, learning and teaching can’t occur. We can’t move forward and that’s not acceptable.”

One concern expressed by Pabst and her family was what they saw as a lack of response by the administration at the high school, with her letter not being acknowledged in what they felt was a timely manner.

Gousse said the letter didn’t sit unheeded, and that the administration took action on it as soon as possible.

“It didn’t languish there for days,” he said, though he did not give a specific timetable on when it was acted upon. “I’m confident that administration is doing the things they need to do to ensure student safety.”

Meanwhile, Pabst and the school department seem to be looking to move on. Earlier this week, Pabst and her mother met with Gousse and Westbrook High School Principal Tom O’Malley to discuss the fallout from the letter and how to move forward.

For his part, Gousse said he was “encouraged” by the meeting.

“From my perspective, they were very open, very honest, very positive,” he said. “They gave me some insights and ideas. I think many positives will come out of this.”

Pabst said the meeting “was definitely a step (in the right direction) to help what I’m trying to fix.”

Her mother agreed.

“I think it went pretty well,” said Terri Pabst. “I think (Gousse) has some great ideas.”

Gousse said that some of those ideas he shared at the meeting included: Getting student leadership more involved in helping to address the issue; initiating programs for students from kindergarten through the high school to help raise awareness of the problem of bullying; creating “safe zones” in the building where kids can go when they don’t feel comfortable; and establishing a hotline for students to anonymously report bullying.

A big area of concern is cyberbullying, as rapidly changing technology and the rise of social media can exacerbate situations, allowing the bullying incidents to continue well past the end of the school day.

“A lot of the issues that involve bullying or harassment revolve around technology,” Gousse said. “As times change and technology changes, we have to adapt to it.”

Gousse said he wants to work on educating students in what he deems “netiquette,” showing what is appropriate behavior online. He said adults have to set the example of what is right and wrong online, because bullying through the anonymity of the Web is not restricted to younger people.

“A lot of people, adults included, can have keyboard bravado,” he said.

Gousse said the high school has already begun putting more faculty and staff in the hallways to keep an eye on things, and he believed the addition of a second assistant principal at the high school next year will be a help, as well.

“Bringing over some extra support is a good thing,” Gousse said.

But, even with the extra help in the administration, Gousse said that the students at the school should play a big role in helping reduce bullying and harassment.

“I think whenever you’re looking to address something like (bullying), it has to come from the kids,” he said. “I would like to convene a group of student leaders and say, ‘What do you think?’ Kids are smart, they’ll tell us what works.”

For her part, Pabst said that she is glad that she made the decision to take her story public, especially since it looks like it has started some real changes at the school.

“I don’t regret it,” she said.

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