BANGOR, Maine — As a father of three who has experienced bullying firsthand, Ryan Hatch of Bangor says he intends to do what he can to make sure others don’t have to endure it.
“It’s bad. I used to get bullied every day — physically — when I was in high school. A friend of mine was so physically bullied where he went to school that he ended up transferring to a school in this area,” Hatch said during an interview at the Maine Jump in Bangor, one of the inflatable play centers he owns.
“It was snowing one morning and he was on his way to school and he was killed in a car accident because of the weather,” Hatch said. “Just think. If he was never bullied at school, he would never have transferred schools. He never would have had to drive down that road.”
Now in his 30s, Hatch says he has not forgotten what it felt like to be bullied and the emotional and physical toll that bullying can take on young people.
“We just lost a girl in Thorndike to bullying. She killed herself,” he said of the 13-year-old sixth-grader who committed suicide last month.
According to the National School Safety Center, there are approximately 2.1 million bullies and 2.7 million of their victims in U.S. schools. One in seven students in grades kindergarten through 12 is either a bully or a victim.
The National Education Association estimates that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students.
“This is something in our community that needs addressing. We can’t lose another child to suicide because they were bullied in school,” he said. “School should be fun and enjoyable. Kids shouldn’t have to go to school and be bullied and think about taking their own lives.”
Hatch said he also was deeply moved by “ Bully,” a 2011 documentary that follows the lives of five students who face bullying on a daily basis. Two of the students committed suicide because of bullying. The documentary led to a nationwide anti-bullying movement called The Bully Project.
Frustrated that bullying continues to occur at area schools, Hatch recently began organizing an anti-bullying coalition that will work to stop bullying in its tracks.
So new it doesn’t yet have a name, the group so far includes people from law enforcement, the business community, the social services arena “and just normal citizens that have decided we’re fed up with it. We want it to go away,” he said.
“I’m sitting here one day and I said, ‘I have tens of thousands of people I talk to [via social media],” he said. “A lot of these parents [whose children are victims] aren’t as fortunate as far as having their voices be heard.”
To that end, Hatch sent a pair of “blasts” out on his Facebook and Constant Contact accounts earlier this month outlining his anti-bullying mission.
“I wanted people to know that I’m here for them and there a lot of us here for them,” he said.
Hatch said he received roughly 200 responses, including some from parents with heartbreaking accounts of what their children have experienced or are experiencing.
“We know its not going to be that easy. We’re taking a very hardline approach as far as challenging these school systems, challenging these communities, to let us know what they are doing to protect our children. Not only communities, but police departments.
“I think everybody has experienced bullying in some fashion, but for some kids it becomes extremely hard. It becomes physical,” he said. “And now you have cyberbullying. A lot of this is happening at home. It’s happening after school hours but it’s falling over into the next school day,” he said.
As Hatch sees it, while all Maine school systems are required to adopt anti-bullying policies, some schools are not doing enough to address the problem.
“A lot of schools say they have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy when it comes to bullying, but what does that really mean?” he said, adding that he is concerned that some schools’ policies lack the teeth needed to stop bullies from acting.
“It can happen anywhere. Children in our communities are taking their lives because they feel that there’s nobody there to be their voice or to listen to them. I’m here to tell them I am here. I will be your voice and I will get you answers,” he said, adding that he already has written to some area schools where parents have said bullying occurs.
Ainsley Newton, the Maine Department of Education’s bullying and harassment prevention consultant, said that current state law requires that schools adopt anti-bullying and anti-cyberbullying policies that outline how cases of bullying are to be documented and investigated and what the response will be.
While the department and the Maine School Management Association each have developed model policies that individual school units can turn to, what they ultimately adopt is a local decision.
“The way schools respond is prescripted by what this new law says and not by what people’s personal opinion is,” said Newton, whose role includes investigating bullying complaints referred to her by the governor’s office.
Newton said Saturday that she understands the frustration that the parents of bullied children are experiencing.
“I think what is difficult for people is that sometimes, they want the school punished and that’s not the job of the department of education,” she said. Adding to the frustration is that school officials’ responses to bullying must be kept confidential.
“Of the calls I get, I would say seven out of 10 [parents] are upset because they don’t think anything happened, but they can’t be told what happened. Or they hear hearsay and it’s not correct,” she said.
“I certainly applaud this passion and energy around it as long as it goes in a positive direction and not blame and point fingers,” she said, later adding, “No school can eradicate bullying. It can’t happen. It won’t. But you can do things to help to reduce it and make that school climate and culture better.”
For more information about the anti-bullying group and its mission, contact Hatch by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.