Robert Bergeron and Nayomee Desmarais, both 12-year-old seventh-graders, sit on the front steps during a protest at Lewiston Middle School on Wednesday. Students held the protest as a reaction to what they say is a bullying problem at the school. Many classmates of a female student who recently died wore green in memory of the student, who was on the school’s “green team.” “It’s sad that she was trying to get help and the school didn’t do anything,” said eighth-grader Paige Gagnon. “We don’t want this to happen to another student,” said eighth-grader Vanessa Roberts. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

LEWISTON — About 30 Lewiston Middle School students skipped class and quietly gathered outside the school Wednesday to rally in support of a fellow student who died Tuesday and to protest bullying at the school.

The girl’s cause of death has not been officially released, but education officials this week sent parents information on how to support teens “through difficult times” and said suicide was a topic parents should discuss with their children.

Several students said they were friends with the girl or shared classes with her. They said she was taunted online and bullied in school and that school officials did little to stop it.

“She reached out to get help and they told her to just ignore the bullying,” Vanessa Roberts, 14, said.

Both seventh- and eighth-graders complained that bullying is a widespread problem at the Central Avenue school, which has 724 students.

“We just want the school to know they need to start helping us,” Elizabeth Homan, 14, said.

Some students blamed teachers and guidance counselors, saying they have done little to address the problem and have repeatedly failed to bring the issue to Principal Jake Langlais. They said they have been discouraged from seeing him themselves and have been told to wait “days and days” to talk to him.

Christine Torres, a middle school parent who attended the rally with her daughter, urged those students to go to the principal, anyway.

“You throw a fit,” Torres told them. “Wait until after school, throw a fit at that (reception) window until you see your principal. Say ‘That’s who I trust. That’s who I want to talk to.’ He’ll listen. That man’s a good man.”

Langlais did not return requests for comment Wednesday.

Students also complained that the school does too little to help students who are suicidal or hurting themselves.

“If someone gets into a fight, they’re right on that,” Roberts said. “If somebody is feeling suicidal, ‘Oh, well, it happens to everybody.'”

Students also felt the school was not doing enough to acknowledge the student’s death this week. Many of the students wore green shirts or green face paint in honor of the girl, who was part of the “green team” class group at school.

Superintendent Bill Webster stopped by the rally Wednesday morning. He estimated that 40 or 50 students began gathering outside the school’s front doors at the start of the school day. Some went to class or were picked up by parents as the morning went on, leaving about 30 gathered on the fronts steps and sidewalk by midmorning.

He said school officials notified parents but were otherwise letting students stay outside “as they deal with their grief on the loss of their fellow student.”

“We’ve been very respectful of that and allowed them to do what they felt was appropriate,” he said. “We have offered to them and continue to offer to them if they choose to come indoors that there are counselors available, both school counselors and counselors from outside agencies.”

Webster said he could not comment on the student who died this week, citing privacy laws. However, he did say it’s untrue that the student asked for help and the school did not provide it.

“We are limited in what we can say both out of respect for the family and to be in compliance with laws that limit what can be shared publicly about students,” he said.

Webster also declined to comment on claims that the girl was bullied, again citing privacy concerns.

“I can say this — there’s nothing that has come to my attention that the school hasn’t handled in an appropriate way, both before and after this event,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that we’ve had a number of social media posts, often with incomplete — if not inaccurate — information.”

Webster added that bullying is a problem nationwide.

“I think one of our biggest challenges when situations do come up is creating an environment where students feel comfortable coming forward with that information, because often schools are not aware of what happens,” he said.

Asked about the students’ claims that they’ve told staff members about bullying to no avail, Webster said he has been involved with a handful of cases at the middle school and all were taken seriously.

“I’ve read detailed investigative reports and I’ve looked at the consequences that we addressed with students, how we dealt with students,” he said. “It’s something we take seriously. I think there are a lot more issues in this case and in other cases, too. Few people know all the facts of a situation.”

Webster said the school has held off organizing any memorial or vigil for the student out of respect for her family.

“Anything that we do will be in conjunction with their wishes,” he said. “I think they’re still wrestling with how to deal with this. That doesn’t mean there won’t be one.”

Counseling is being made available to students and the school system will host a “community conversation” on how to support children at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at The Green Ladle at Lewiston Regional Technical Center.

The middle school also mailed a letter to parents Wednesday advising them about mental health resources in the area and detailing the kinds of behavior they should be concerned about in their kids.

At the rally Wednesday, students announced plans to hold a candlelight vigil in the girl’s honor at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday outside the middle school.

Some mental health experts have cautioned against vigils in cases of suicide because they may be seen as glorifying death and prompt others considering suicide to see the attention as positive.

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