Bangor High junior spearheads civil rights effort

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff
Posted Oct. 28, 2008, at 8:27 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Jessica Tracy, 16, thought that having a civil rights team at Bangor High School was so important that she started looking for a faculty adviser over the summer.

Tracy, a junior, was one of 20 Bangor High students who attended a daylong training session Tuesday at Brewer Auditorium for civil rights teams at schools in northern and eastern Maine.

More than 3,000 students in 230 schools around the state are on civil rights teams. The program, which was launched in 1996, is coordinated by the Civil Right Division of the Attorney General’s Office. It encourages students to act as role models and intervene when someone is teased or harassed, according to Assistant Attorney General Thomas Harnett, who runs the program with a budget of less than $200,000.

This is the first year Bangor High School has had a civil rights team, he said. Bangor elementary and middle schools have had teams in the past.

“We are thrilled that Bangor High School has joined us as we enter our 13th year,” Harnett said Tuesday.

He also said that he was not sure which other schools in Bangor have teams this year.

Tracy said Tuesday that she was on a civil rights team when she was a fifth-grader at Fairmount Elementary School and remembered it as a positive experience. When she got to Bangor High, she joined the Gay-Straight Alliance, but that organization had a small membership.

“We need[ed] something bigger,” Tracy said Tuesday. “Something that could have more impact.”

Issues she would like the team to address immediately are discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identification and socio-economic status.

“It’s especially important that we have a civil rights team at Bangor High since the three boys who killed Charlie Howard went to school here,” Tracy said. “It’s our duty as a high school to show our support to [the gay, lesbian, transgendered, bisexual] community.”

Howard, known as a flamboyant gay man who wore makeup and carried a purse, had recently moved to Bangor from Portsmouth, N.H., when he died on July 7, 1984, according to an article published in the Bangor Daily News on the 20th anniversary of his death.

He died after three teens chased him and a companion in downtown Bangor. The young man tripped on a curb, and the three boys, James Baines, 15, Shawn Mabry, 16, and Daniel Ness, 17, threw Howard off a bridge on State Street. Charged with murder, they eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and were sentenced to the Maine Youth Center in South Portland.

Memorial services each year are held in July to remember Howard.

Last summer, Tracy e-mailed English teacher Stephanie LaPlante and asked her to consider being the adviser to the school’s first civil rights team. LaPlante, who has taught English at Bangor High for four years, knew the potential of the program.

LaPlante’s first teaching job in fall 2002 was at the Deer Isle-Stonington School. Her duties included serving as adviser to the high school’s civil rights team. Because she had seen the difference the program had made at that school, LaPlante, 32, worked in September with the administration at Bangor High to get the program in place.

“We were able to effect positive change in the student body [at Deer Isle-Stonington] and make the community more aware of how to be polite to one another,” she said during a break in Tuesday’s training session. “Sometimes, hate speech is almost unconscious. Having a civil rights team made people more conscious of it and taught them to think before they speak.”

LaPlante said she was not sure why Bangor High had not had a team before.

“This year, we were lucky enough to have our request to start a team granted,” she said. “I’m really grateful for that.”

The team held two organizational meetings earlier this month with 15 to 20 students at each one, LaPlante said.

Noah Siegel, 16, of Bangor said that he heard a lot of verbal taunts and put-downs in the school. The training, he said, helped him understand how it might look impossible for an individual to make a difference but showed how a team could have an impact by its members working together.

“I hope what we do really does take effect and help the school become a better environment,” the junior said.

http://bangordailynews.com/2008/10/28/news/bangor/bangor-high-junior-spearheads-civil-rights-effort/ printed on July 28, 2014