BUCKSPORT — High school students got the opportunity to voice their opinions Thursday about a wide variety of issues that affect their school and community.
Students and staff at Bucksport High School have been planning the school’s first Youth Summit for several months in an effort to improve their school and their community, according to Senior Donald Grindle, one of the student organizers of the event.
“About three months ago, a very small group decided to get together to see what we could do to help the high school have a better climate,” he said. “We wanted to get our voices heard, not just what the teachers were telling us.”
A student survey highlighted areas of concern: alcohol and substance abuse, bullying and name calling. One of the top concerns was “respect.” More than half the students surveyed said they did not feel that students at the high school respected one another.
The issue of hate violence also was added to the agenda in response to events of the past week after a local man distributed fliers supposedly recruiting young people for a white supremacist hate group. The man later recanted and said the whole thing was a hoax.
The thought that such a group was forming locally, however, stirred a strong response from students. Several, who already were working on the summit, worked with faculty and administrators and eventually invited Stephen Wessler of the Portland-based Center for Prevention of Hate Violence, to speak at the event.
“He had the experience to help us to get our voices out,” said senior Michael Smith.
Students — and adults — were “really upset” about the idea that this could happen in Bucksport.
“I was really angry,” one student said.
“I was embarrassed.”
“This is not what Bucksport is.”
“It was absolutely terrible.”
“I thought it was pretty stupid.”
Wessler told the students that the comments made in the fliers were deeply disturbing and hateful and did not represent the community. But, he noted, that the incident provided them with an “opportunity to speak out against violence in your community.”
Some already had spoken out by creating a Facebook page for the Bucksport Pro-equality group. The page attracted more than 600 members who supported the page’s pro-equality stance.
“The comments have really been very supportive,” said senior Troy Vincent, one of the page creators.
“This really has brought out the best in a lot of people,” added senior Michael White, another page creator.
Wessler encouraged students to continue to stand up against injustices done by people who use degrading words and put-downs toward people for a variety of reasons such as how much money they have, their sexual orientation, body size, race or religion.
Words, he said, are the most dangerous weapon that come into the schools each day. Wessler told them about the death of Charlie Howard, the young gay man who in 1984 was beaten and then thrown off a bridge into the Kenduskeag River in Bangor where he drowned. He said the three high school students who killed Howard had started out talking in derogatory terms about gay men, talk which had escalated to harassment and attacks against gays in Bangor and ended in Howard’s death.
“That didn’t start on that bridge,” he said. “It started two months before with the random use of degrading language, and no one interrupted.
“Nobody spoke out, nobody told an adult,” he said.
He urged them not to remain silent when they have the chance to speak out against that type of behavior, even though it is difficult.
“It takes courage,” he said. “You have that courage.”
The students spent much of the rest of the day in smaller groups discussing other issues that had been raised in the surveys. Student organizers said they hoped that the summit would begin the process of making the school and community a more accepting place.
“We’re trying to find a way to get kids to be a good person and not just sit back and let stuff happen,” said junior Joe Goodin.
“I want everyone to be accepted,” Troy Vincent added.
The summit, they said, is the start of a process that will continue.
“It’s going to take a lot of time,” Goodin said. “But this is a good start.”