May 21, 2019
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Student protest over bullying leads to blunt dialogue at York High

Deborah McDermott | The York Weekly
Deborah McDermott | The York Weekly
he York School Department and York Diversity Forum held a panel discussion on creating an inclusive environment at York High School. Participants included, from left: Karol Maybury, psychology professor at the University of Maine at Farmington; UMF student Matthew Wyman; Mount Blue High School student Tommy Eng; and York High School students Samantha Corbett, Sophie Blanchard, Joe Graziano and Danielle O'Connell.

Senior Teal Kim said during her time at York High School, she has been bullied and harassed by other students, particularly when she was younger. And she said she’s experienced uneven treatment on the part of teachers, administrators and other students in response.

“At first I was very afraid to tell anyone, because I was afraid of being called a tattletale,” she said. “As I became more confident, I did talk with teachers. Some do a really good job, and some don’t. They say they’ll do something but then they don’t.”

But the kids, too, can make such an enormous difference, she said.

“Students need to reach out more to other students if they see bullying,” Kim said. “Just saying, ‘Hey,’ or turning and talking to someone or sitting with someone at lunch is so important. It helps them build relationships and feel more included.”

Her fellow classmates who spoke at a recent panel discussion said a school’s culture can inform the kind of experience each student has. If teachers fail to respond to harassing incidents, if students are hesitant to speak up for fear of ridicule, if an offhanded comment like “that’s so gay” packs a wallop when it’s heard by a gay, lesbian or transgendered student, it matters. So does a smile, a nod in the hallway, a voice of reason when someone is being harassed, a classroom that is judgment free. That is the future toward which these students are working at York High School.

This fall, a freshman was bullied by a small group of students after he came out as gay, a situation that resulted in his older brother allegedly assaulting one of his bullies. In its wake, hundreds of students held a rally in support of their gay classmate, calling for more inclusivity at the school. Among the rally organizers were four students who participated Thursday night in a broad-ranging, honest panel discussion called “Creating a Safe and Accepting High School Environment.”

Co-sponsored by the school and the York Diversity Forum, the event was moderated by University of Maine Farmington psychology professor Karol Maybury, whose students study best practices for inclusivity at Maine high schools.

What emerged over the course of the evening is a student-driven game plan for systemic change at York High. It involves concrete steps such as revisions to the school bullying policy and inclusion of gay/lesbian/transgender discussions in freshman health classes, to a more amorphous goal of creating an inclusive atmosphere among students and teachers.

“Part of the problem is getting kids safe enough to tell people and creating a situation where they can be heard. If you say something, you’re a snitch and that’s something we have to get over,” said junior Danielle O’Connell, a member of the school’s Gay, Straight, Transgender Alliance.

But it’s deeper than that, she said. “I’m in the Chamber Singers and we sing for younger kids. We’re recognized for this. They think we’re cool. Same with TIDALWAVSE (the YHS drug/alcohol-free group). Adults are proud of them. That’s what we need to do. Imagine if young kids look up to us and the community is behind us.”

Senior Sophie Blanchard talks about “the second person” when one student makes a harassing comment in front of others. “There’s a way we can combat that,” she said. “The second person who speaks is the leader. If the second person stands up to the bully, it starts a ripple. We have to show kids that they can stand up when something is wrong.”

Further, she said, “we need to define what bullying is and make sure every kid in the school understands what it means. We’re trying to get that consensus from a large diversity of students.”

“Another piece of that is informing kids about how a statement may affect LBGTQ students,” said senior Samantha Corbett. “There are some people who use phrases like ‘That’s so gay,’ and they don’t realize how hurtful that can be. It’s just something they’ve heard other people say. Maybe if they knew how that makes some people feel, they’d understand that it means more than, ‘That’s so lame.’”

Senior class treasurer Joe Graziano said the class officers in all four grades have gotten together, to brainstorm ways to reach as many classmates as possible.

“We’re trying to find out what people want to do moving forward, to make the best improvements for everyone,” Blanchard said. “Kids ask what is bullying? We need to define it and make sure every kid understands what it is.”

Several of the students mentioned in particular an effort to work with the School Committee to update its 2011 bullying policy. Corbett said technology and social media has exploded in the past seven years, providing ever more avenues for bullying, which need to be reflected in the policy. “We want a policy that keeps up with the times,” she said.

At the same time, the policy should contain the principles of “restorative punishment,” she said. “You can change the culture, but there’s going to be kids who refuse to change with it, and punishment may be necessary for those kids. But you’re not going to do anything to change the behavior if there isn’t a restorative piece.”

University of Maine-Farmington student Matthew Wyman, who came with Maybury to be on the panel, said the importance of teachers and administrators can’t be overestimated. A transgender male, when he was in high school kids told him, ”‘You’re not really a boy.’ They didn’t call me a name, they didn’t punch me. But they hurt me. I went to the school administrators and they said, ‘But it’s true, though.’”

At the same time, he had teachers who would say to his classmates. “‘I’m not going to tolerate this behavior.’ Some classes felt safe, I felt like teachers had my back. Then in other classrooms, I’d just sit away from everyone else because no matter what people said, the teacher wasn’t going to say anything about it.”

Corbett and Blanchard are also working to bring their message of inclusivity to the elementary and middle school. Most younger students, said Corbett, “think seniors are the coolest people. So if we can set an example and stop behavior before it starts, hopefully it won’t be a problem in high school.”

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