DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Soon after a local man enrolled his 12-year-old son at SeDoMoCha Middle School, he said the boy became the victim of an older pupil’s bullying, which started with name-calling and escalated to an assault at recess on April 15.
Having lived in California before moving back to his hometown in July, the man said his children had attended a school with nine different gangs and 13 different races but had never encountered any bullying. Aggression against his children had not even been a concern for him as he looked forward to returning home.
But as soon as school started, the abuse began and continued until his son was choked last month, the father said this week. When he learned that the bully had received only a two-day suspension and would return to his son’s classroom, he filed an assault charge and removed his son and his two other children from the SeDoMoCha complex. He said he took the other two children out of school because he feared for their safety.
For now, he and his wife are home-schooling the children, but they hope to convince SAD 68 directors that policies need to be changed to keep students safe.
The father, who approached the Bangor Daily News about the problem, had agreed to have his name used in the story but later said he did not want his name used for fear of retaliation.
The abuse suffered by the young boy comes in the wake of a bullying story that drew national attention, that of Phoebe Prince, 15, an Irish immigrant who committed suicide in January after about three months of taunts and aggression from fellow students at her new high school in Massachusetts, according to news reports.
Bullying, or “peer-to-peer aggression,” is a problem everywhere, according to Thom Harnett, a Maine assistant attorney general for civil rights education and enforcement whose office gets calls daily from parents citing incidents involving their children.
Society tends to focus on tragedies such as that involving Prince, according to Harnett.
“What we fail to realize is that for every young person who’s driven to that extreme, there are many, many more who are suffering in silence,” he said Thursday. “Our failure as a society is we don’t pay attention sometimes until the tragedy occurs, and that itself is a tragedy.”
Harnett, who is director of the civil rights team project in the Maine Attorney General’s Office, speaks in schools about verbal, physical and electronic harassment. During those talks, Harnett said, he describes situations of peer-to-peer aggression, a term he prefers over “bullying.” After those sessions, students have come up to Harnett and told him they thought he was talking about them because his descriptions paralleled their own experiences.
“Many times young people will say, ‘I thought it was my fault, or I thought it was just me; I didn’t know there was something I could do,’” Harnett said. “We really want young people to understand that nobody should be made to feel unsafe in the school.” If they do feel unsafe, they need to talk to someone about it, he said.
That’s exactly what a student at Machias Memorial High School did earlier this year. A girl there had been bullied mostly through electronic means by a group of other girls, and she and her parents met with school officials, according to assistant principal James Black. Black said Thursday that the school reacted very quickly to the bullying after confirming that it happened. He said the girls involved were disciplined, policies were tightened regarding the use of cell phones and school-issued computers, and more emphasis was placed on respect within the schools.
The parents did not want to speak to the BDN about the incident.
The Dover-Foxcroft father said his school was not as responsive. He claimed he received a telephone call about the April 15 incident from a school official about an hour after it happened. The official reportedly told him that his son had received a couple of scratches in an incident with the other boy and was just fine.
Troubled, the father said he went to the school and noted that his son had bruises — not scratches — on his neck. He said he took his son to Mayo Regional Hospital’s emergency room. There they confirmed his son had been physically assaulted and that the muscles in his neck had been bruised by having been choked, he said.
Don’t do ‘anything drastic’
The father sent e-mails about the incident to members of the SAD 68 board of directors. He said only one director responded — twice — to the e-mails, and those responses were forwarded to the BDN. In one e-mail, the director said he was sorry to hear about the problem and noted school officials were working on a solution.
“I strongly urge you to not do anything drastic, for it may not help your other children,” the director wrote. In the second e-mail, the same director wrote, “If you just sent this to me that may be a mistake. Have you ever heard the expression of ‘you are biting off your nose to spite your face’?” The father said both e-mails felt a little threatening.
SAD 68 Superintendent Alan Smith said this week that the concerned father, or any parent, has the opportunity to speak before the board. He said the father has been placed on the agenda at 6:30 p.m. May 4 to speak to the board. “I want to assure the community that I take bullying very seriously and we do have a safe school for our students,” Smith said Thursday.
When the father realized that his name would become public when he appeared before the board, he sent an e-mail to the BDN on Friday saying he would withdraw his request to appear before the board.
Police Chief Dennis Dyer confirmed that the father had filed an assault charge against the alleged bully. A summons will be mailed to the boy’s parents, he said Thursday. When he receives the signed summons, Dyer said he would refer the matter to Piscataquis County’s juvenile intake worker. Parents must sign summonses is-sued for juvenile offenses.
“I’m not trying to do a monetary thing, I’m trying to change the laws, rules and policies,” the father said this week. “I would hate to see that the state of Maine waits until they have the same thing as in Massachusetts [Prince’s suicide] before they decide to change the rules, policies and laws.”
Harnett said peer-to-peer aggression is as much of a problem in Maine as it is in other states.
“Our young people are no different than young people anywhere,” he said. “It would be foolish for us to think that for some reason we were immune to these types of behaviors because of where we are located.”