HARRINGTON, Maine — An elementary school student who remained in school after being charged with a sex offense set off a firestorm of controversy, but there is one thing people divided by the issue agree on: the paramount safety of schoolchildren.

The controversy cut a wide swath this week — a large number of students apparently were kept home in protest one day; some parents met in a heated 2-1/2 hour meeting with the SAD 37 superintendent; one member of the school district’s board of directors with a son in the same class as the accused resigned; and a petition signed by 103 area residents was submitted to the board asking for a review of school district bylaws and policies.

The issue involves an 11-year-old Harrington boy who was summoned by Maine State Police in late December on a felony charge of gross sexual assault. The boy and his alleged victim were both students at Harrington Elementary School, but the alleged assault did not happen on school grounds, according to state police spokesman Stephen McCausland. The alleged assailant is scheduled to appear in court later this month or in early March. The boy is not being named because he is a juvenile.

A Harrington woman who says her son was the victim of the sexual assault reported it to state police after she learned of it. Her son was 8 when he was forced to perform a sex act on the alleged assailant at that boy’s home in September, she said. The mother said she has since taken her son and her other child out of Harrington Elementary School and enrolled them in a private school.

The boy who was charged has been allowed to remain in school because the alleged incident did not take place on school property. The school district has a bullying policy that — in some instances — may be applied to conduct that occurs off school property. However, Superintendent Ron Ramsay contends the bullying policy did not fit the circumstances in this case.

SAD 37 administrators and state education officials who were asked about the controversy this week were unanimous in agreeing that school officials have ensured that students have been safe.

“All necessary steps have been taken … to provide for the safety of all the children at Harrington Elementary School,” said Ramsay, who would not share details about the specific steps that school officials have taken.

Everett Grant of Addison, chairman of the school district’s board of directors, said that “whatever actions have been taken to date have provided for the safe continuance of education for all parties.”

“I think we find ourselves, along with our entire student body, in a very unfortunate situation,” said Grant. “The school can only manage those things that are within its scope of responsibility, and a sense of normalcy can only be restored with the help and cooperation of all interested parties.”

State education officials “have been in close communication” with Ramsay, according to Samantha Warren, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, to discuss strategies for ensuring the safety of students.

“From those conversations, it appears the right steps are being taken to do just that — some of which the community may not be aware of because schools are prohibited under state and federal laws from publicly sharing information about individual students,” added Warren.

“That said,” continued Warren, “as committed as we all are to what is best for students, the district’s hands are largely tied because there are clear limitations school leaders have in handling situations — as horrible as they may be — that did not occur at a school, as is the case here.”

“School leaders have a very limited ability,” Warren said Friday, to deal with behavior that does not occur at school. Their authority is limited to field trips, for example, and cyberbullying. A superintendent’s purview is school, said Warren, while law enforcement is the appropriate agency to respond to allegations of criminal behavior that is reported to have taken place elsewhere.

The circumstances for SAD 37 are unusual, noted Warren, because they involve young children. “In any other situation, people would not advocate a superintendent taking action” or intervening because of conduct that took place off school property.

Sarah Strout of Harrington organized last Monday’s protest and had a hand in the petition drive. More than a third of the kindergarten through eighth-grade students enrolled at Harrington Elementary School were absent on Monday, according to the superintendent’s office. School enrollment is 159, and 58 students were absent.

Even Strout conceded that students were safe. “I don’t think my kids are in danger,” said Strout, whose children did not resume going to school until Thursday. “For the most part I still think our kids are safe at school,” she added.

However, Strout, who called for the removal of the “sexual predator” from school when she spoke with reporters on Monday, indicated that parents are going to dig their heels in to advocate for improved policies to address such issues. “I’m not going to stop,” she said. Current policies are “severely lacking,” she said.

The school district policy on bullying behavior was revised in March 2013. It was reviewed by the school district’s legal counsel and the Maine School Management Association, according to Ramsay. A model policy was provided by the association.

The model complies with legal requirements and “is aligned” with a suggested policy developed by the Department of Education, said Warren. The department is “confident in the strength and thoroughness of our model policy as it relates to prevention and meaningful response to school bullying and harassment,” she said.

However, even the model language applies to cases of bullying off school property if it infringes on the rights of students at school as per the definition of bullying. The definition of bullying includes behavior that may harm another, puts a student in fear of harm, creates an intimidating or hostile educational environment, or interferes with a student’s academic performance. The same model language is used in the SAD 37 bullying policy.

Any change in school district policies must “ensure the rights of the accused are preserved and that due process is maintained,” said Grant.

“I would resist any attempt to expand the scope of a school’s authority beyond that which is currently accepted,” added Grant. “School resources are already stretched very thin trying to accomplish the goals of education, and we need to preserve the role of parenting.

“Any well-written policy provides good specific direction while allowing latitude for administrators to deal in the moment with the myriad circumstances and details that are impossible for policymakers to foresee or predict,” said Grant.

Cornelia Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association and the Maine School Boards Association, did not respond to requests for comment.

Atlantic Mental Health Clinic, which serves Aroostook, Hancock and Washington counties, offered to help educate SAD 37 school officials about sexual abuse and how to prevent it, and Ramsay said Friday he plans to take the agency up on the offer.

Tiffany Strout and Kandi Robertson, both of Harrington, presented the school board on Wednesday night petitions signed by 103 residents who want the panel to review existing bylaws and policies and provided information about pertinent policies in other school districts. The request and information was referred to a standing subcommittee.

The petition notes that school district bylaws and policies “are not being enforced to their full potential and intentions.” The petition requests board members, teachers and the superintendent to review bylaws and policies related to sexual misconduct, bullying and harassment between students, students and teachers, and teachers and teachers “with special concern related to any shortcomings of existing policies currently in place.”

To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence service provider.

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