WINTERPORT, Maine — Bullying is a big deal with serious consequences, Deputy Darrin Moody and Detective Gerry Lincoln of the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office informed students at Wagner Middle School in Winterport on Thursday during an all-school assembly in the gymnasium.
But the uniformed police officers weren’t telling the kids anything they didn’t already know. After spending a little time defining what bullying is for the nearly 200 fifth- through eighth-grade students, Moody and Lincoln asked if anyone in the room had been bullied.
About half the students in the room raised their hands, forming a waving forest of arms above the wooden bleachers.
“Students deserve to feel safe at school,” Moody told them. “The effects of bullying can last long into your future, when you become an adult.”
The educational session had been planned before Mount View Middle School student Kitty McGuire of Troy took her own life last week, Wagner Middle School Principal Richard Glencross said after the assembly. McGuire’s family has linked her death in part to school bullying.
“I think bullying is something that in my experience is ongoing. It’s a battle that never ends,” Glencross said.
He and other teachers emphasized that Wagner Middle School is a place where students generally are kind to each other.
“This school has a fabulous school culture,” he said. “It’s very important to me, and very important to the staff that we maintain that school culture. I like to think we’re proactive, that we do things here to prevent bad things from happening.”
Inviting the officers to the school was one way of doing that, he said.
Moody and Lincoln explained to the students that bullying is intentional, harmful physical contact or verbal abuse. Verbal abuse could happen either in a conversation or, more commonly these days, through text messaging or on social networking sites such as Facebook. Under Maine law, bullying and cyberbullying have the same weight, Lincoln said. And bullying amongst students — whether it primarily takes place at school or on the Internet — can create a hostile environment which interferes with a student’s ability to learn.
“When it gets to a certain point, law enforcement’s going to get involved,” Lincoln said.
Bullying commonly looks like punching, poking, hair-pulling, biting, beating, extorting, isolating and harassing, the officers told the mostly quiet group of middle schoolers. The effects of being bullied can include depression, low-self-esteem and thoughts of self-harm, they said. Bystanders also are negatively impacted by bullying.
“When people see bullying occur, they also feel unsafe. They feel afraid,” Lincoln told the students. “They feel powerless to act.”
Some bystanders do nothing. Others act to protect the victim, sometimes in ways that are not well thought-out. Some may join in the bullying, perhaps because it looks like fun or perhaps because it seems safer than doing nothing, the officer said.
“This is the worst thing,” he said.
Also, bullies must be held accountable for behavior that’s unacceptable.
“If you hold them accountable, they’re going to know that’s wrong,” Lincoln said.
The officers urged students to report bullying — even the kind that happens online — to teachers or to other trustworthy adults.
While the police did not discuss the tragedy at Mount View Middle School — which remains under investigation — they did take a question from a young woman about whether or not people ever commit suicide because of bullying.
“They feel bad,” Lincoln said, adding that the answer was yes. “People are telling them horrible things that aren’t true. It gets to the point when sometimes people want to hurt themselves, and that’s the worst thing about bullying.”
For more information on bullying prevention, please visit the webpage http://www.maine.gov/doe/bullying. For questions or concerns about suicide prevention, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112 or chat with a counselor at imalive.org.