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Expert: Brunswick Junior High had strong system in place to combat bullying

Posted July 16, 2014, at 6:05 p.m.
Last modified July 16, 2014, at 6:44 p.m.

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BRUNSWICK, Maine — Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski on Wednesday continued to defend the district’s efforts to prevent bullying, two days after the Maine Human Rights Commission found that the school department discriminated against a former junior high school student who was bullied by other students for more than two years because of his perceived sexual orientation.

Perzanoski said Wednesday that Brunswick Junior High School staff “has gone above and beyond to try to make the school a safe and welcoming environment for every student who walks through the door.”

A Maine-based anti-bullying expert on Wednesday seemed to support Perzanoski’s contention.

The superintendent declined to further discuss Monday’s decision, and instead referred to a statement Tuesday in which he said the district was “extremely disappointed” with the decision and “wholeheartedly disagree[s]” with it.

He mentioned a 2010 study by Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, and the resulting book, “Youth Voice Project: Student Insights into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment,” that praised Brunswick Junior High School’s anti-bullying efforts.

On Wednesday, Davis said that at the time of the study, which surveyed more than 13,000 students in 31 schools around the country, reports by students at Brunswick Junior High School indicated they were the most likely to feel connected at school and more likely to feel that adults responded quickly and adequately if they reported harassment.

Davis declined to speak specifically about the ongoing Brunswick case, which will now enter a 90-day mediation period. He also said he has no information about Brunswick’s anti-bullying efforts today. But he said that in 2010, Brunswick Junior High School students praised the school’s Peer Partners mentoring program for incoming sixth-graders as well as the school’s adviser-advisee program.

A code of ethics developed with student input, students told him, was “meaningful, clear and something they owned instead of a set of rules imposed from above.”

“Students also said in their observation that, for the most part, adults would respond in an effective way when they came to them,” Davis said. “That doesn’t mean the school is going to make good decisions in every way, and I don’t know how the program has evolved, but they made a real effort to build connections in a lot of different ways for everybody, and a real effort to make behavior expectations real and alive and owned by students and staff.”

According to a report by Maine Human Rights Commission investigator Victoria Ternig, school officials argued that “the handful of allegations” was not sufficient to create the hostile educational environment the student’s family said existed from August 2010 to August 2012.

The district acknowledged that the student, who no longer attends Brunswick schools, was “occasionally teased and made fun of by other students” — sometimes about his weight or lack of athletic ability — but said officials never heard any student call him gay.

School officials told the investigator that videotape of alleged instances of assault did not support the claims, and that “BJHS often found that the minor’s perception of a situation did not line up with the reality of events.”

The district said it responded to each incident by having teachers and counselors meet with the student and the alleged offenders.

Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, said Tuesday that Monday’s vote was the first time in her three-year tenure that the commission had ruled a school district had discriminated against a student who claimed to be the victim of bullying, although an investigator found “no reasonable grounds” in such a case brought to the commission in July 2011.

Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said Wednesday that she had not been contacted by any school superintendents concerned about potential precedents set by Monday’s decision.

Brown declined to comment on the Brunswick case, but said she understood that the Brunswick School Department followed state procedures for developing a policy to combat bullying.

In 2005, a Maine law was amended to require all schools to implement policies and procedures to address bullying, harassment, bias-based harassment and sexual harassment.

Only this year did the state start requiring schools to report instances of bullying. The process continues to be refined, according to Stephanie Galeucia, who coordinates the response to bullying for the Maine Department of Education.

Following Monday’s vote, the Human Rights Commission, family and school district have 90 days to attempt to resolve the matter through a mediation process, Sneirson said Tuesday. If that effort is unsuccessful, either the family or the commission could file suit against the school district.

On Tuesday, Courtney Beers, an attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance who represents the teen and his family, said they would participate in the mediation process but could still sue the district.

 

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