SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage met Tuesday afternoon with students at South Portland High School to praise their leadership and commitment to raising awareness about dating abuse and domestic violence.
LePage spoke to a group of 20 student representatives from each of nearly 10 groups at the school working to maintain an open dialogue about dating and domestic abuse.
Those groups include several organized by local prevention education group Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program: the boys track, hockey, soccer and basketball teams, and the girls basketball and track teams. Each group has a different agenda, but all have pledged to maintain an open dialogue for students about domestic violence, dating abuse and bullying.
LePage especially applauded the work of the boys, who ranged from student basketball players in a group called Coaching Boys Into Men, to a group of students known as Guys & Pies, who discuss personal issues over pizza once a week.
According to the governor and many of the groups’ statistics, men perpetrate 80 percent of domestic violence.
“In order to eradicate it, it’s up to men to step up,” LePage said. “The women and children who are the abused cannot be expected to take on their abusers and be successful. They need society to step up.”
“Neither gender has a monopoly on the problem,” he added, “… but more important than gender is that it’s power and control over another human being.”
LePage brought along purple ribbons and bracelets bearing his personal anti-domestic violence catchphrase, “If it is to be, it’s up to me.”
During a roundtable discussion, and later at a lecture with nearly 100 students, LePage shared his personal experiences growing up in a violent home.
Domestic violence has been a platform of LePage throughout his term as governor. He ran away from an abusive father at age 11, and lived on the streets for several years before being taken in by families in the Lewiston-Auburn area.
“I’m the epitome of the American dream, but I didn’t do it alone. I had mentors,” the governor said. “… For each and every one of you, there’s a mentor out there. Go find them.”
Griffin Henderson, a sophomore and member of Guys & Pies, said he felt good about the discussion between LePage and the student groups.
“It was a good thing to be a part of, especially with the governor telling his story and getting personal with us,” he said.
For four years, close to a dozen sophomore and junior boys in Guys & Pies have met weekly with leaders from YAAPP to talk out their problems and discuss social issues in pop culture over pizza.
“It’s in my opinion a very cool way to talk about [domestic violence issues] in a very safe environment,” Henderson said. “It’s a fun time, I’m always looking forward to it to talk with my friends. We know that anything said in that room won’t leave that room.”
Carlin Whitehouse, an educator with YAAPP and organizer of Guys & Pies, said the support for domestic violence prevention efforts goes deeper than just the students at the high school.
“South Portland has really turned into our champion,” Whitehouse said. “The administration and faculty, athletic department … everyone is super on board with the programs. There’s a lot going on.”
In addition to question and answers, LePage also ran through abusive scenarios the students might encounter and advised them about how best to respond. In addition to confiding in trusted adults, he said students should never let an abuser or bully “get away with it.”
“People trying to hurt others don’t want to be noticed,” he said. “When you notice it, it goes away.”