DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — The mother of an eighth-grader at SeDoMoCha Elementary and Middle school said her daughter has been called rude names, pushed in hallways and harassed online by fellow students.
The mother of a fifth-grade boy said her son loved going to the school until another boy threatened him with a knife.
Another mother said her fourth-grade son dropped out of two sports at the school because he relentlessly was called names.
The three parents said they are not satisfied with how the school has handled incidents they are certain constitute bullying.
School officials say they are addressing individual incidents that can be difficult to investigate and verify. Not every fight involves a bully, they say. They point out there are programs in place at the school to prevent bullying.
Local police say they are aware of bullying at SeDoMoCha, but say the school should try to resolve most incidents before law enforcement is called in. Only a handful of bullying complaints have been filed with police in recent years, they say.
The situation at the school in Piscataquis County that serves students from several small towns shows that bullying is a complicated social problem that frustrates children, parents, educators and law enforcement alike.
Cynthia Schmand-Philbrook said her 14-year-old daughter has been bullied at the school for the past three years.
She said the eighth-grader has been called rude names, pushed in hallways, had rumors spread about her and been harassed online.
“It was a nonstop thing,” Schmand-Philbrook said recently. “She couldn’t walk down the hallway or be in the bathroom without being harassed.”
Distracted by the bullying, her daughter’s grades plummeted, she said.
Schmand-Philbrook said the administration’s solution to the problem wasn’t a good one.
“A lot of the suggestions were that maybe she can use the bathroom at the other end of school and change [what my daughter] was doing, rather than reprimand ones who are causing the issues,” she said.
Her daughter’s schedule was changed in order to avoid the bullying. That was unacceptable, Schmand-Philbrook said.
RSU 68 Superintendent Al Smith said Schmand-Philbrook was presented with a number of options to address the issue, and it was her decision to change her daughter’s schedule.
Schmand-Philbrook said Tuesday she has had enough and removed her daughter from the school in order to homeschool her to “just to get her grades up and back in the right direction.”
Amber Tibbetts of Dover-Foxcroft said her 10-year-old son who is in the fifth grade used to bring home school papers graded above 100.
“He’s the type of kid who would get up two hours before school to go over his homework,” said Tibbetts. “He loved to go to school.”
Now, he fears going to school, she said.
Tibbetts said a boy who had bullied her son sat next to him in class and showed him a knife during the first week of school in September.
“He was sitting at the same table, got a knife out and said, ‘Hey, look at this. This is meant for you. Next time you say anything, I will kill you,’” said Tibbetts, relaying her son’s recollection of the event.
The knife was taken away, but no disciplinary action was taken against the child with the knife, she said.
Superintendent Smith said the child brought the knife to school, but that no threat was made.
“We investigated this intensively. Her child was not threatened with any knife at all,” said Smith. “I can’t get into specifics [on punishment], but it was dealt with appropriately … and other measures were taken so inappropriate acts don’t take place in the future.”
According to the elementary school handbook, weapons such as firearms, knives and switchblades are prohibited from school property.
Tibbetts said her son changed after that day.
“For two weeks, he didn’t tell me [about the knife incident],” said Tibbetts. “He wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t come out to play with his baby sister. He was afraid that if he left his room that this kid would find him and he’d get hurt.”
“I had to pick him up and put him over my shoulder to put him in the car [to get him to school],” she said. “He would shake. He would cry. He’d be hysterical if he had to go to school. And this is a kid who loved to go to school.”
Tibbetts said the school separated her son from the bully, but the bully still confronts her son during lunch and recess.
Shawna Miller of Dover-Foxcroft said her soft-spoken son has been the target of a bully.
Miller said her 10-year-old son, who is in fourth grade, was constantly being called names.
“My son’s dropped out of two sports because of this kid,” said Miller, adding he left the football and basketball teams.
“The boy said [her son] was too weak to do either, so he dropped out of both,” Miller said.
The bullying caused problems at home, too.
“I think since the bullying started, he has lashed out more at home,” she said. “If I have to speak to him, he’ll say he’s had a rough day at school because of this kid. It’s never ending in this school.”
“I had to make excuses for him to stay home from school [because he was afraid of the bullying],” she added.
The school’s response
All three mothers said they have spoken to Julie Kimball, principal of SeDoMoCha Elementary and Middle School, and Superintendent Smith.
“Last year, I can’t tell you how many times I was in that school [to talk about my daughter being bullied],” said Schmand-Philbrook.
Smith said bullying needs to be looked at from both sides.
“For the person doing the bullying, you have to address that with disciplinary action,” he said. “In looking at the victim, what do you do to make that person safe? How can you put together a good program so that person feels comfortable?”
Investigating each incident is important, Smith said.
“If two kids get into a fight, I don’t know if that’s bullying or not. We have to investigate,” he said. “Is it a fight or did it reach [the bullying] level? It’s easy to say it’s bullying from the outside looking in.”
Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance, according to Stopbullying.gov, a website set up by the federal government to address the widespread problem. In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:
- An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power — such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity — to control or harm others.
- Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.
Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose, according to Stopbullying.gov.
Some teachers at SeDoMoCha have been a big help in curbing bullying, while others ignore it, said Schmand-Philbrook.
“There are several teachers that are there for the right reasons. They try to look out [for the kids],” said Schmand-Philbrook. “Then you have some who don’t want to get involved.”
Smith said teachers should intervene whenever they see a bullying incident and report it to the office, where it is investigated.
The students have also been helpful in stopping bullying, he said.
Students “may intervene and say ‘we don’t act like that, we don’t do that,’” said Smith. “Some students need that support.”
Police action has been rare for bullying, said Smith, but it has happened.
Tibbetts said she filed a police report for the knife incident. Dover-Foxcroft Police Chief Dennis Dyer said that through interviews, he discovered that the boy did not threaten Tibbetts’ son with the knife, so he wasn’t charged.
Schmand-Philbrook said some students received written warnings from police, and that has calmed some of the bullying.
Dyer said he has served harassment notices against students at SeDoMoCha for bullying, but not many.
“You read all this on Facebook and there’s meetings [regarding bullying], but I’m sitting here thinking, ‘We haven’t had a lot of complaints for bullying other than three or four we’ve had already,’” said Dyer recently.
Dyer said he would like students and parents who are the victims of bullying to go to the school first to complain. If they aren’t satisfied there, then they should go to police, he said.
“It’s hard for us to step in [if we’re not told]. We’re not fortune tellers,” said Dyer. “[Parents] have to report it to police. I’d rather see the school deal with it, but if they need us to help, we’ll be there to help them.”
Smith said sometimes kids think they can handle it themselves and don’t want adult involvement.
“Sometimes it’s very difficult to get kids to share with us what’s going on until it erupts,” said Smith. “We work really, really hard to communicate with parents and students. If we don’t know about it, we can’t do anything about it. When those communications take place with parents and students, we’re proactive in our approach in our investigation piece to get to the bottom of it.”
Theresa Makowski, secretary of the SeDoMoCha School Organization (SSO), the school’s parent-teacher organization, who is also a substitute teacher, said she’s heard of parents talking about bullying, but has not seen it herself.
“For instance, another parent of a child in one of my son’s classes said there’s a ‘mean girls club.’ I have no personal experience with it. I hear talk of it,” said Makowski.
SSO President Monica Demers said she has seen many positive steps taken by the school to make it a better place.
“What SeDoMoCha has been doing the last two years is more of a school-wide approach,” said Demers. “Rather than focusing specifically on every case [of bullying], there’s been an effort to change the culture on bullying.”
Demers, who has children in the schools, said bullying isn’t a widespread problem at SeDoMoCha.
“I have family members involved in different school systems in the area. I see SeDoMoCha as a very proactive school as far as bullying goes,” she said.
Programs in place
Superintendent Smith said the elementary and middle schools have had anti-bullying and kindness campaigns for a few years. He’s noticed quite a difference in that time, he said.
“There’s been a change in the culture and climate and we’re creating a real open communication,” Smith said.
Kimball, principal of SeDoMoCha, said every October is Bullying Prevention Month and the concept is carried throughout the year. One week in January was “no name calling week,” she said, with every day featuring a different theme.
The school has turned to rewarding kindness as a way to combat bullying, said Kimball.
Students earn a ticket for each kind act that is witnessed by a teacher, she said. Those tickets can be turned in for weekly drawings.
“Elementary students can get bouncy balls, pencils and those sorts of things while middle school students can get $5 or $10 gift cards for iTunes or to Walmart.”
Movies and student-led skits have also been shown to kids to promote bullying awareness, said Assistant Principal Matt Lokken.
In his four years as superintendent, Smith said he’s seen a positive shift in student attitudes.
“Does it work? Yes. Does it take time? Yes. Are you going to fix everything? No,” said Smith. “When you find those students who won’t conform to what is the appropriate behavior, you watch them. We have regular communication with the parents. We document everything.”