HARRINGTON, Maine — The mother of a local child who allegedly was sexually assaulted said she saw in her son the harmful effects of keeping what happened to him a secret, which is one reason she is pressing state lawmakers for new guidelines regarding juvenile sex offenders in public schools.

An 11-year-old boy in Harrington was charged with felony gross sexual assault at the end of December in connection with the reported incident. Both children attended Harrington Elementary School at the time of the alleged assault, which did not happen on school property. The younger boy’s parents since have removed him and a sibling from the school to protect them from the accused boy after the school system did little to keep them separated.

The mother said she learned in a November phone call that her then-8-year-old son allegedly had been sexually assaulted by an 11-year-old boy two months before at a birthday party.

“It was probably the hardest call she ever had to make,” the Harrington woman said, referring to another woman in town who heard about the incident from her own child and decided to pick up the phone. “It was certainly the hardest call I’ve ever taken.”

The mother, who is not being named by the Bangor Daily News to protect her son’s identity, said she noticed changes in her son’s behavior after the September birthday party. She said he became introverted and started to act differently.

“The period between the incident and me getting the call was difficult,” the boy’s mother said. “He was angry. If we said ‘no’ to him it was like dealing with a 2-year-old with temper tantrums and crying. He had a lot to hold in.”

In retrospect, “I completely understand why,” she said.

She since has learned through discussions with her son and the investigating detective that her child reportedly was forced to perform a sex act on the accused boy while two other boys watched.

After reporting the incident, the alleged victim’s parents immediately contacted a counselor for themselves and another one for their son.

“We’ve been going to counseling and have learned how to deal with him,” she said. “It’s more about understanding that he’s doing the best that he can right now.”

Hiding the secret of the sexual assault did nothing but put the child in more pain, the boy’s mother said.

“Once the secret comes out — [the child is] much better off,” she said. “Now we do talk about it. We’ve kept it open and honest and he knows he did nothing wrong and those who did will be punished. I pray it goes that way.”

She added later that, “by not talking about it — by internalizing it — it creates shame. That is why you have to talk about it.”

Most child sexual abuse, an estimated 90 percent of all reported incidents, involves people known to the young victims, and of that number, 60 percent are family members or friends, according to Beverly Fortson, a behavioral scientist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fortson made a presentation last year at a conference in Florida for reporters covering child sexual abuse stories.

After the Harrington investigation began, a temporary protection from abuse order was issued to keep the boy accused of the assault from contacting her son, who is now 9, but it did not prevent the two from attending the same school. At that time, both boys were enrolled at Harrington Elementary School, a small Washington County school with only 159 students.

The mother went to school officials, asking that the accused fifth-grader be suspended until the criminal case had made its way through the court system, but they said their hands were tied because “he is entitled to a free and fair education,” she said.

After her son came home from school upset about being in close proximity to the boy charged with assaulting him, his parents again went to school officials about keeping them separated.

They removed their son and a sibling from the Harrington school shortly after the meeting with school officials and enrolled them in private school to protect them from the accused boy, the mother said.

“No one was listening. That is why Sarah [Strout] organized this whole thing,” she said, referring to a protest earlier this week where more than a third of the students stayed home from school and parents presented a petition to have SAD 37 officials review school rules.

“We have to talk about it. It has to be dealt with so we can make changes,” the boy’s mother said. “It’s a very difficult subject. I understand that.”

Christine Morris, client services advocate for the Atlantic Mental Health Clinic, which serves Aroostook, Hancock and Washington counties, has offered to educate school officials and the community about sexual abuse and how to detect and prevent it.

The goal is to provide “a safe place to ask questions and get answers,” she said. “Right now, everybody feels that what is most important is for the community to heal.”

The Harrington mother of two also has asked state lawmakers and enforcers to look into the matter and create statewide guidelines to deal with juvenile sex offenders who are enrolled in public schools.

“I sincerely hope that there is legislation passed so that when things like this happen in the future there is no gray area for school leaders to hide behind,” the mother of the alleged victim said Thursday. “When a kid is charged with a felony, this is what you do.”

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.