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Maine Cracks Down on School Bullying
01/04/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Students who engage in bullying and cyberbullying in Maine schools face tough consequences under a new state policy released this week. Education officials developed the rule after Gov. Paul LePage and lawmakers signed off on a measure last year to prohibit such behavior. Districts must now revise their existing guidelines to bring them in line with the state. As Jay Field reports, the release of the policy caps a seven-year effort to crack down on bullying in Maine schools.

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One person who's had a lot to do with helping Maine reach this point is Deb Landry. In 2005, when Landry's son was in the sixth grade in Saco, he witnessed an eighth grader physically and emotionally abusing another boy on the school bus. Landry's son told the principal about the incident. Word got back to the eighth grade bully, who began harrassing Landry's son, telling him over and over, "I'm going to get you, I'm going to find out where you live."

"He became very fearful and became depressed. He didn't want to go to school anymore," Landry says. "He would actually get off at a neighbor's house on the bus and walk through the woods and come home so that boy wouldn't know where he lived."

Landry's son ended up seeing a counselor to heal from the emotional fallout. Landry got involved in the public debate over bullying in schools. She became part of a group that drafted the state's first anti-bullying law, and she also consulted on the tougher measure passed by the Legislature last year.

"I belong to an organization that tracks all the laws across the country. They grade like a regular A, B, C. And Maine has an A minus," she says.

Maine's new statewide policy offers a more detailed list of behaviors - both physical and emotional - that could be construed as bullying. For the first time, there's a cyberbullying section devoted to defining what counts as harrassment via social media and mobile devices.

Ansley Newton just retired from her job as the bullying and harrassment prevention consultant at the Maine Department of Education. Newton, who helped develop the new policy, says it asks a lot more of teachers, principals and superintendents too.

"The current law really holds schools more accountable about how they're going to be reporting, investigating and responding to bullying," she says.

Principals and superintendents must investigate incidents promptly under the new policy. They're required to come up with a system of graduated discipline for punishing infractions. Newton says they're also expected to communicate regularly with the parents of targeted students and report any bullying that crosses the line into illegal behavior to law enforcement.

"I think that the key thing here is to really look at the climate and culture both in our schools and our communities," Newton says. "Because it's the climate and culture that really determines how successful any type of approach is going to be."

In a 2009 survey on youth health, one in five students who responded reported being victims of cyberbullying. Those numbers are consistent with national data compiled by the Cyberbullying Research Center.

One way Maine hopes to learn if it's having success changing the culture of harrasement is data collection and analysis. Under the new policy, principals and superintendents are required to keep track of incidents and report that data to the state.

The Department of Education is hoping schools across the state will follow the lead of Walter Wallace, the principal at Brunswick Junior High School. Wallace has developed an electronic system that allows teachers to quickly record incidents in three different catageories, based on their severity.

"We've been able to locate times of day that we're seeing greater incidences, we've been able to determine locations where, okay, that may be a spot where we want a little more supervision," Newton says. "It's a big step for our teachers, asking them to put together that information. But they've really stepped up and it's been helpful."

Wallace says the data has helped his school uncover some of the deeper patterns that seem to be common to most of the bullying that takes place. By next year, all educational leaders in the state will need to learn to use technology to identify the trends in their own schools.



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