SAD 44, parents seek solutions to bullying

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BETHEL — About 40 people attended a meeting at Telstar High School on Thursday on the issue of bullying.

The gathering included presentations by SAD 44 school administrators and Sarah Ricker, the student assistance coordinator for the Maine Department of Education.

The meeting was prompted in part by concerns of the group Parents Against Bullying in SAD 44. The group had expressed concern about what members said were several cases of bullying this school year, including physical, verbal and online incidents. Some parents said they felt the incidents had not been handled according to school policy.

 
Ricker, who oversees compliance with the state’s bullying laws and is a primary contact for guidance counselors, outlined the state’s definitions of bullying and harassment. She noted that harassment is based on a protected status such as race, religion or sexual orientation, for example, and may be a violation of federal and state law.
 
Bullying may be a violation of School Board policy, and can involve: physically harming a student or damaging his/her property; interfering with the rights of a student by creating an intimidating or hostile educational environment for the student; interfering with the student’s academic performance or ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities or privileges provided by the school; or based on a student’s actual or perceived race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. or association with a person with those characteristics, which could also meet the criteria for harassment.
 
She said harassment cases involve legal measures and specified numbers of warnings to the parties involved, while bullying can be a one-time incident.
 
School districts are required to establish policies and procedures to address bullying on school grounds or events or during transportation of students, as well as cyberbullying that takes place elsewhere and infringes on student rights at school. 
 
Ricker said the investigation of a bullying incident requires the school principal to look at many factors. The problem must be addressed either “promptly,” or within a specified number of days if the district policy establishes that.
 
She said reports relating to a bullying incident may be “hard to hear” for parents because what the school observes may differ from what the student may be telling his/her family. She said all parties need to be brought into the conversation.
 
Ricker also said parents understandably want steps taken that they feel are justified by the incident. But if they want to talk about the other child involved, she said, the parents need to talk about the behavior only, not the individual, in order to avoid problems with confidentiality laws.
 
Superintendent Dave Murphy reiterated that point, noting that while parents may want to know who the bullying offender is, “we can’t talk to you about the student, but we can talk about the behavior.” He also said the school cannot share information about the person being bullied.
 
He said dealing with a bullying incident is a very complicated process and involves many forms and interviews.
 
If parents say another student has bullied their child for years, it is difficult to go back and look at incidents if there is no record of them being reported, he said. Murphy also said a report can be filed anonymously and the incident investigated, but disciplinary steps cannot be taken based only on anonymous reports.
 
District policy
 
Building administrators shared copies of a flowchart that illustrates the district’s newly adopted Bullying and Cyberbullying Reporting, Responding, and Remediation Procedure.

The process begins when school staff receives a report of alleged bullying, which may come from a student, parent, staff member, community member or anyone else who witnesses an incident perceived as bullying.

Interim measures are taken to ensure the safety of the student who has been bullied and to prevent further bullying, and parents of students are contacted.

School staff interview the victim, witnesses, and the alleged bully, and review all available evidence.

If the behavior is determined to meet the state’s definition of bullying, remediation procedures are begun.

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If it is found to be of a criminal nature, law enforcement authorities are notified.

The procedure for remediation may include disciplinary consequences such as detention, suspension, or expulsion; alternative discipline, including counseling, reflective activities, anger management, or community service; support for the victim; and/or other interventions.

Telstar High School Principal Cheryl Lang said she thinks communication between schools and families has been greatly improved under the new policy, particularly with regard to closure.

“Now we actually document it in writing,” she said, “and we document it for both the alleged victim and the alleged bully. We notify parents in writing that the investigation has come to a conclusion, and what are the safety measures and what are the consequences that we have put in place, and how we plan on moving forward from there.”

The panel of building administrators took questions and heard remarks from those in attendance, several of whom wanted assurance that the new policy would lead to improved outcomes with regard to instances of bullying.

Community member Beth Weisberger said the methods of remediation under the new policy, while innovative, appear to be complex and time-consuming.

“While I agree with it in principle, a lot of it will fall on your social worker and counselor,” she said. “Is Telstar really equipped with someone who has the time (for the protocol in the policy)? Are you guys ready to do this, and who’s doing it?”

Superintendent David Murphy said the district had just hired another social worker, giving the Telstar complex two full-time social workers and a part-time one, as well as a guidance counselor.

State guidelines call for one counselor/social worker for 315 students at the middle school level and 225 at the high school level.

Murphy said Telstar has a total of 380 students in the middle and high schools, giving them 3.5 positions, two more than the state lists under its Essential Programs and Services formula.

“We also have a person who does all of our special ed social work on top of that,” he said.

Transportation Supervisor Ron Deegan discussed the role of bus drivers in recognizing, preventing and reporting bullying behavior, and the training they receive.

“We have cameras in the buses and that’s a great tool,” he said.

Building administrators are able to review audio and video recordings taken on buses to determine if bullying or other inappropriate behavior has taken place.

Crescent Park Elementary School Principal Elaine Ferland told the audience that communication and reporting by students and parents are key to resolving issues of bullying.

“We all know that bullying doesn’t happen in front of us. It’s going to happen in places where there are no adults around,” she said.

“It’s so important that kids speak up and we need to teach them that,” she said.

Ricker praised the staff and parents of the district.

“I go all over the state having these conversations, but this conversation is a little unique,” she said. “You guys have so many great ideas. It can be really hard to have these conversations, but when your kids are coming home and talking to you, you’ve got to give yourself two thumbs-up as a parent, because not all kids go home and talk to their parents.”

For the complete district policy on bullying go to http://www.sad44.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?dir=J_Students&type=d&uREC_ID=299905.

Sarah Ricker of the Maine Department of Education addresses a meeting on bullying at Telstar High School in Bethel on Thursday night. (A. Aloisio/The Bethel Citizen)

 

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