AUGUSTA, Maine — Andrew Cole knew growing up in Old Town that he was different from his classmates. They knew it, too.
“I got picked on a lot and called names,” Cole, 21, of Saco told a roomful of high school and middle school students. “Some kids were suspended because of how I was treated, but I went to school every day worried about getting picked on.”
Cole was one of several dozen people who led workshops Monday at the annual conference of the Civil Rights Team Program held at the Augusta Civic Center. He was part of a three-person panel from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network of Southern Maine that led a workshop for middle and high school students titled “Sexual Orientation and Privilege in Schools.”
Things got better for Cole once he got to Old Town High School and realized that as a homosexual he was different from most other students. He also was a member of the first civil rights team at the school. Today, there are teams at all the Old Town schools.
About 1,100 students attended Monday’s conference, according to organizers. Workshops for grade-school teams focused on diversity, being an ally to others and creating loving communities at their schools. The topics of workshops for the older students included Maine Roller Derby, genocide survival stories, healthy dating relationships, stereotypes about American Indians and how comic book characters responded to the threat of the rise of Nazi Germany.
The Civil Rights Teams Program was created in 1996 by the Maine Attorney General’s Office. The program helps train student groups to speak out against bullying and intolerance in elementary, middle and high schools, according to Thomas Harnett, who directs the program. During the 2009-2010 school year, teams were active in more than 200 schools.
The statement on the back of Kellene O’Hara’s T-shirt summed up why she’s been a member of a civil rights team since the fifth grade — “Laundry is the only thing that should be separated by color.”
O’Hara, 17, is a senior at Caribou High School.
“I first got involved out of curiosity,” she said after a morning of workshops. “But I think we’ve brought a greater awareness about civil rights to all the schools I’ve attended in Caribou. We’ve done programs on dating violence and HIV and AIDS.”
The program she is most proud of is not finished, O’Hara said. Her high school team is working on a film that will be used by the Maine Attorney General’s Office to educate students about what the Maine Human Rights Act is and what it does.
The Maine Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination because of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, genetic predisposition, religion, ancestry or national origin.
“This film is going to be a great tool to help the next generation of students to keep doing this work,” O’Hara said.
Attorney General Janet T. Mills said before she addressed the group over lunch that her office is committed to funding the program even during the difficult economic times the state is facing.
“Today we celebrate the hundreds of actions of hundreds of students — many of whom are in this room,” she told the group. “But as wonderful and fun as these things are, we know that we always can and will do better.
“We in this room are pledged to always focus on the positive,” Mills added. “Hatemongering, rumor, stereotyping, trash talk — that stuff is all around us — in the media, in online commentaries, in blogs and in bathroom graffiti. We can and will resist it. We can and will speak up against it.”
Cole’s story about how difficult his school days were before civil rights teams came to the Old Town schools inspired at least one member of the current high school team.
One of the things Lee Jackson, 15, of Old Town said he is taking away from Monday’s conference is how powerful words can be.
“They can be really hurtful,” the sophomore said, “but they also can really help someone when they are down. I also learned many of the skills it takes to reach a community with a message, whether that community is my school, Old Town or the nation.”
What lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students face in school, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network:
• 86 percent experienced harassment at school.
• 74 percent heard hate language frequently or often at school.
• 61 percent felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.
• 44 percent reported being physically harassed at school because of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
• 22 percent were assaulted at school.
• 33 percent skipped a day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe.
• 42 percent who experienced frequent physical harassment at school did not plan to attend college.
Source: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network 2007 National School Climate Survey of 6,209 middle and high school students