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Maine New Bullying Law Targeted for Changes
04/19/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Maine lawmakers enacted a bill last year that was supposed to address the problem of bullying in Maine schools. But one state lawmaker says the current law is too broadly written, and he wants some changes. Members of the Legislature's Education Committee heard from those on both sides of the issue during an afternoon public hearing. A.J. Higgins has more.

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As the husband of an educator, state Rep. Michael McClellan supported a bill a year ago that gave teachers and school administrators new tools to confront all forms of bullying. But he says what seemed like a good idea at first may have been applied too broadly.

McClellan says there are increasing incidents of activity that might be something other than bullying. He points to a Maryland case involving a seven-year-old as an example.

"We've all read the story of a kid who carves a gun out of a piece of bread at lunch, you know, a kindergartener, and gets suspended from school - that kind of a situation where it probably shouldn't be called bullying," he said. "And, of course, if you call someone a bully, you've labeled them for life now - it's going to be in their file."

Nothing quite like that has happened in Maine, but McClellan says there are fairly innocuous events that happen weekly in Maine that are triggering bullying allegations because of the way Maine's law is written.

"This person shared that they're a parent, have a young child in elementary school, and one day, simply on the playground said to someone else, 'So-and-so likes you.' And the parent got a note from the school with a check list saying your son was bullying this other kid," McClellan said.

McClelllan's bill would allow educators on a first time basis to make a decision on whether the first-time activity really constitutes bullying, and would also reduce the scope of tracking paperwork that must be completed each time a bullying offense is lodged against a student.

Penny Morrell, of Concerned Women for America of Maine, thinks McClellan's right. She says the real problem in the current law lies in its zero tolerance provisions.

"Because of the zero tolerance, every little infraction involves the parent, the teacher, you have to write up all this information and it goes in their file," Morrell said. "It's cumbersome, as Rep. McClellan gave in his testimony, and it takes away time from the educational process."

The latitude McClellan's bill would provide might be welcome by some teachers, but others could be caught in a difficult legal situation if a situation initially perceived as minor ultimately led to more serious incidents of real bullying. Grace Leavitt is vice-president of the Maine Education Association, which is opposing the bill.

"Bullying has become an epidemic," she said. "Every day, 160,000 children miss school due to a fear of being bullied. To ignore bullying behavior is an unacceptable alternative to confronting the problems behind bullying. Though we support the concept of conflict resolution being used to help both bullies and victims, we believe we must document each and every incident."

The committee is scheduled to work the bill alter this month.


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