LINCOLN, Maine — As a middle schooler in Massachusetts, Mark Beatty was insecure, overweight and he stuttered. He was especially vulnerable to bullies, he said, and they did torment him with cruel nicknames and abusive behavior for many months.
Then his family moved to Lincoln, and Beatty met his first ally, Dustin Libby, “a really cool guy who helped me adjust” to the move, he said. Confidence overcame insecurity, the stuttering ceased and the former loner became an outgoing member of his own crowd.
“It shows that if you have an ally,” Beatty says, “bullies are less likely to pick on you.”
Now a member of the Mattanawcook Academy Bully Prevention Team, the 18-year-old senior confronted bullies on a schoolwide scale when his team hosted an anti-bullying awareness day at the northern Penobscot County school Monday.
The day featured social service providers telling MA students during their lunch breaks of the bullying horrors seen in Lincoln and elsewhere and the resources victims can seek. Team members visited classrooms and described the typical components of bullying, bullies and their victims.
It was the second large-scale anti-bullying event in the team’s three-year history, academy Principal Henry Pietras said.
“This was starting really small,” Pietras said. “We are all aware that we have had some incidents of bullying in and around our schools. This is a step toward generating some awareness of this problem.”
Hovering over the event were the case of Phoebe Prince, 15, an Irish immigrant who committed suicide in January after three months of bullying at her new high school in Massachusetts, and incidents reported at a Dover-Foxcroft school forum on May 12, including an autistic child whose arm was broken in a schoolyard in April, Pietras said.
Lincoln has no reported suicides traced to bullying. Michelle Russell, director of the Lincoln KidCare America After-School Mentoring Program, told students about an 8-year-old client so anguished by bullying that he asked her for a knife so he could harm himself.
At least six suspensions at Mattanawcook Academy over the last three or four years have arisen from bullying, Pietras said. The total number of suspensions was not available Monday. Although the school doesn’t track bullying incidents, a survey of 264 MA students in 2009 found that 31 percent reported being bullied at school during the previous 12 months.
Bullying often traces to complex problems outside school, including drug abuse, family violence, divorce and poverty, students said. Many bullies are insecure and get hooked on their own power to bully.
“If they find something wrong with themselves, they pick on others to make themselves feel better,” said 15-year-old freshman Courtney Burris of Lincoln. “They will keep doing it until they get the message that they have to stop.”
“Many of the victims are the silent kids who we never recognized because they never spoke up,” RSU 67 Superintendent Michael Marcinkus said.
The academy’s first defense against bullying is the prevention team, 15 students trained to identify incidents, report them and use simple counseling and intervention techniques to address bullies, bystanders and victims. Team members call themselves allies.
Many allies know bullying first-hand. As with Prince’s case, female bullies targeted ally and senior Jessi-Rae Day, 18, of Lincoln for months when she tried to date an upperclassman. She overcame the bullies by seeking help from Pietras, Day said.
“Most of the [school staff] are pretty good at helping people with bullies, but there are a few who could care less,” Day said.
Allies befriend victims, bolster their confidence and encourage bystanders to join them in discouraging bullying. Some tell off bullies themselves.
Some students view the anti-bullying program with skepticism. Junior Caroline Smart, 16, of Lincoln expressed doubt that a problem so deeply rooted could be solved by a one-day event or a single program that trains 15 students annually out of 400.
“Things like this don’t get through. People who are bullies aren’t going to stop because of this, and the people who are allies will naturally be that way without being named [allies],” Smith said.
“I don’t think this is something that can be fixed,” said 16-year-old Joshua Wheeler of Lincoln, a freshman.
“Some of them [allies] are bullies, too,” said junior Nicholas Rideout, 17, of Mattawamkeag.
One ally said bullying isn’t always apparent to the bully.
Defeating bullies “is all part of your character and what you choose to be,” Smart said.
Character plays a part, but so does society, the allies said.
“Having groups like this will help people understand that they don’t have to be bullied or be a bully,” said ally and senior Taylor Gordon, 18, of Lincoln.
MA guidance counselor Andrea Smith, a prevention team adviser, said she believed the program has reduced bullying.
When the allies asked about 175 students eating lunch in the cafeteria whether they would be interested in joining the team, she said, 75 percent stood up.
“So often when you’re bullied, you feel like you’re all by yourself,” Smith said. “Looking around the room at that moment, you could see that there are a lot of other people who care about not being bullied.”