The issue of bullying prevention is on the minds of at least three Maine legislators this session.
“This is a national issue. It came to my attention when I read the story about the student in South Hadley, Massachusetts,” says Democratic Rep. Don Pilon, of Saco, who is spearheading efforts in Augusta to draft a bill that would crack down on cyber-bullying and other types of harrassment.
Pilon is referring to the case of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, who was driven to suicide a year ago after a relentless campaign of bullying by fellow students–much of it via text messages and email.
“What I”m trying to do with this cyber-bullying policy is be pro-active here in Maine, and have some rules and regulations in place so that teachers, administrators in the school system here will be able to respond if a situation like this occurs here,” Pilon says.
Pilon’s not the only state representative who’s submitted anti-bullying legislation this session. Two other bills are also at the revisors office–one of them drafted by Republican Bradley Moulton from York, the other by South Portland Democrat Terry Morrison.
“Our children are dying, our children are hurting themselves, cutting themselves, slitting their wrists, afraid to go to school for fear they’re going to get picked on,” Morrison says. “It needs to end and it needs to end now.”
Morrison says he recognizes that many teachers and students in many Maine schools are working hard to prevent bullying, but he says there’s room for more to be done at the legislative level.
“I know teachers and administrators have done their part and I’m not lecturing them by any means with this legislation,” he says. “But what I am bringing, I’m trying to raise this issue up to the top of the heap, so to speak, and make this more, not just a speech here and there, but really raise better awareness of this.”
Advocates of some form of a statewide response to the bullying issue say they hope the three draft bills will be combined into one piece of legislation, a key part of which will be the establishment of an advisory board for each school district. There would also be a procedure to confiscate the laptops of cyber bullies, who would then face expulsion from school and possible civil penalties.
Steve Wessler is executive director of the Portland-based Center for Preventing Hate, a non-profit that works with communities across America and in the UK to counter bias, harrassment and violence.
“I think what does help is a clear statement from the Legislature, and from the governor who would sign the bill, that there is nothing more important than making sure that every single child, whether they are male or female, black or white, gay or straight, or any of the other categories, is physically and emotionally safe when in school,” Wessler says.
But while he supports the effort, Wessler says there is a limit to what legislation can do. “Because what you’re trying to do is to change climate, and you’re trying to change behavior, and as I think we all know, laws don’t change behaviors, it’s other things that go around laws, whether it is involving law enforcement, which has a role in this but I’d say not the major role, empowering faculty and staff, empowering students to be able to address those issues, creating programs in schools.”
“As I’ve seen national laws, the laws that seem to me to be making a positive effect are the ones that define some best practices, that encourage or mandate all school staff to be trained in best practices,” says Stan Davis, a retired school guidance counselor from Maine.
Davis is also an author who has written extensively on bullying prevention strategies. He’s worried by the fact the legislation pending in Augusta contains no funding for training programs. And he says the least effective laws are those that also try to create a state-level definition of bullying, “because sometimes that definition is so restrictive that is doesn’t include a lot of behaviors that really do harm.”
And some of those behaviors are delivered via social networking sites. “What I’ve found is people are really good at making really mean, really snappy and just disgusting comments,” says Alexandra Neudek, a student at Falmouth High School, who says she was once the victim of bullying.
One obstacle facing teachers and other adults trying to tackle the issue, she adds, is that many of them are simply out of touch with modern, cyber-bullying methods. “Like, they didn’t have Facebook when they were kids,” she says.
One educator who’s trying to stay one step ahead of the bullying is Lisa Demick, principal at Pownal Elementary School. She says the assaults are more subtle and more pervasive than ever. “The students seem to be very influence by the media right now, and that culture of the survival of the fittest, and the Jersey Shore domination of reality TV is something that we’re really working to combat in schools.”
Tom Porter: “So you’re seeing that Darwinian behavior in the classroom?”
Lisa Demick: “Absolutely.”
Demick says she doesn’t witness much bullying of the cyber-variety at the elementary school level–she says that becomes more of an issue in Maine as kids head into middle school, and receive free laptops.