2013-09-06 / Front Page

Cape beefs up bullying policies

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH – Many students return to school each year sad to see the end of the relaxed, slow-moving days of summer, yet excited to see friends and fall into the routine of school, sports and extracurricular activities.

For students who are bullied, there is no room for those mixed emotions. The sense of fear begins with the first trip through the school hallways. In years past, the dread may have lifted at the end of the school day, but smartphones and social networking connectivity have made cyber-bullying an ever-present threat for those students.

As the 2013 school year approaches, the Cape Elizabeth Board of Education took a step toward strengthening the anti-bullying language in its policies and procedures by passing the first reading of a revised bullying policy at a meeting Aug. 27.

The new policy defines behavior that constitutes bullying. When instances of bullying are reported, the new policy also sets the process of how teachers and staff are to respond.

Superintendent Meredith Nadeau said response policies were already in place in Cape Elizabeth and the new language will not change the practices of teachers and staff in the department. However, she said the new language will provide “a service to students, families and staff” because it adds clarity as to what exactly constitutes bullying and cyber-bullying.

The language of the policy is based on a model policy developed by the Maine Department of Education that resulted from a state statute enacted in May 2012, sponsored by South Portland Rep. Terry Morrison (D-District 122).

Morrison said he was motivated to sponsor the bill after hearing stories from Maine families and seeing what he called a “staggering” number of news reports about students who were bullied.

The definition of bullying under the new policy includes behavior that has the effect of “placing a student in reasonable fear of physical harm or damage to the student’s property” and “creating an intimidating or hostile educational environment for the student.”

The policy provides examples of bullying that include taunting or name-calling, stalking, threats and “behavior that is intended to harm someone by damaging or manipulating his or her relationships with others,” such as gossip, spreading rumors and social exclusion.

Morrison said the goal of the policy is to define the behaviors that constitute bullying, explicitly prohibit those behaviors under state law and have school districts assume responsibility to report bullying complaints back to the department of education, ensuring bullying complaints would not be “brushed off,” he said.

Initially, Morrison was hopeful the new legislation would “change the total dynamic and culture” of schools. He still considers the bill “moderately successful,” but said he has since realized legislation alone does not have the power to change the way students talk to each other.

“You put as many rules in place as you can, what really matters is changing hearts and minds, talking to kids one-on-one and explaining that it’s all about how you treat people,” Morrison said.

Since the law passed, Morrison has visited schools in Maine to learn more from students about the issue and has worked with various anti-bullying volunteers such as children’s author Deb Landry of Saco and Ridin’ Steel, a group of motorcyclists based in Bath that runs a “Bikers Against Bullying” program in schools.

According to Morrison and Nadeau, the complexities that surround the issue of bullying warrant more attention beyond simply identifying the behavior, setting repercussions and reporting results to the state. Often, Morrison said, children who bully do so not because they are mean-spirited or simply want to feel powerful, but because they are lashing out against some deeper-seated issues.

The language in Cape Elizabeth’s new policy allows for a series of graduated consequences that include “alternative disciplines” to pinpoint the source of bullying behavior. Those disciplines include meeting with the student’s parents, counseling, anger management, mental health counseling and in-school detention or suspension.

In recent years, as children’s access to technology grows, cyber-bullying has become a progressively more challenging issue for schools. According to a 2009 study from the National Center for Education Statistics, 28 percent of students from grades six to 12 reported being victims of bullying in some way, while 6 percent of students that age experienced cyber-bullying.

Two years later, a 2011 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed nearly one out of every six students in high school – 16 percent – were electronically bullied in the previous year.

“Bullying is not a new issue, it goes back for as long as there have been schools, I suspect. But the immediacy of a message being sent or photo being posted is much different than it was years ago,” Nadeau said. “For that reason, this has created some new challenges and caused us to help educate students and families about potential consequences.”

Nadeau also noted behavior that doesn’t rise to the level of bullying can still be hurtful to students and create an unsafe learning environment.

“A one-time comment that can be upsetting is still a problem. It doesn’t have to be pervasive or repeated,” she said.

In addition to the reporting and response policy the Cape Elizabeth schools have long held, Nadeau said middle school and high school students have worked with Steve Wessler, a human rights advocate who ran the Center For Preventing Hate from 1992 until it closed in 2011.

Wessler spoke at Cape Elizabeth High School’s TEDxYouth event in December, describing stories from his career in human rights work in a talk called “Having Courage When You’re Scared.”

“Nobody can teach you how to be courageous. Nobody may even thank you for your acts of courage, but when you do act with courage you will make some part of our world safe, and perhaps most wonderfully, there is nothing quite as satisfying as doing the right thing when every inch of you is scared,” Wessler said.

The Cape Elizabeth School Board will meet in the second week of September to review a second reading of the bullying policy, along with a number of other policy revisions. The South Portland School Department adopted the language from the department of education’s model policy in January.

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