HARRINGTON, Maine — Parents and local school system officials began tangling this week with a review of policies in light of charges of gross sexual assault filed against one student and terrorism against another.
The SAD 37 board’s policy subcommittee met Wednesday night but made little progress on the review and took no action. About a dozen parents and a few students attended the meeting at Narraguagus High School, with some participating in the discussion.
Some school officials and parents thought the meeting was a good start, but not everyone was pleased with the session.
The meeting focused very little on a review of the school district’s bullying and other policies. Instead, it generated a wide-ranging discussion that touched on legal matters, student discipline, communication between school personnel and parents, and the impact of social media and news media.
The circumstances that prompted parents to seek the policy review involve an 11-year-old student at Harrington Elementary School who has been charged with gross sexual assault for an alleged incident involving another student that took place off school property. The accused student was allowed to remain in school, prompting an outcry from parents who wanted him removed. Superintendent Ronald Ramsay has said school district policy and procedures were followed and that the accused student could not be removed for an alleged incident that occurred away from school.
The discussion also touched on the case of a Narraguagus High School student who was charged with terrorizing in October after allegedly threatening to bring a gun to school. The student recently was allowed to return to classes.
Ramsay sees no need to change the existing bullying policy, he said Friday.
“But obviously there are people” who disagree, Ramsay added.
“I think the policy actually is a pretty good policy the way it stands,” said Ramsay, but some parents have been frustrated by recent events and “want something done.”
Kandi Robertson and Tiffany Strout, both of Harrington, who presented petitions and information to the school board last month seeking the policy review, participated in the meeting and were hopeful about the eventual outcome.
“I’m feeling pretty hopeful and pretty positive” about the meeting, Robertson said Friday. “I think there’s going to be some good movement.”
Robertson said she was encouraged by the presence of additional school board members who do not serve on the policy subcommittee.
“I think it’s off to a good start,” said Strout.
Katie Curtis of Harrington, however, said she did not feel that any progress was made.
“They’re worried more about the legal aspects than taking care of the innocent people,” said Curtis, who removed her daughter from the high school after the student accused of terrorizing returned.
School board chairman Everett Grant of Addison said after the meeting that it was an “extremely positive conversation.” There was a consensus that state law may need to be changed, he said.
If students cannot be protected from a perceived hostile environment involving another student in school, “Why would any victim come forward?” asked school board member Ronnie Kennedy.
“I do have issues with this,” added Kennedy. “It’s serious.”
A legislative remedy is needed, Kennedy suggested later. “It’s got to be changed at the state level,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do here.”
Curtis also told the group Wednesday that her daughter was bullied at the high school. School staff did nothing about the incidents and did not keep her informed, she said.
“It’s all a crock,” said Curtis. “None of it’s been followed,” she said, referring to existing policies and procedures regarding bullying.
School personnel cannot deal with bullying behavior unless students report it, observed Ramsay.
“Someone’s got to come forward,” Ramsay said.
A student may feel uncomfortable, worried, even scared by the presence of another student in school, noted Ramsay, but that in itself is not enough to warrant disciplinary action against a student.
“It has to rise” to a higher level, Ramsay said.
Ramsay lamented students and parents communicating with text messages, Facebook and other social media while students are in school. Things would “go a lot smoother” if they would refrain, he suggested.
Ramsay also decried the media spotlight that has shined on the school district in recent weeks, saying the school system has been “given a black eye.” The school district receives “very, very, very minimal complaints” regarding bullying, he said. Nevertheless, the news media coverage has damaged the school district and students, he said.
School board members listened to a tearful complaint from a high school student who made apparent references to the student who was charged with terrorizing.
“I’m not safe,” said the girl, who indicated she had been threatened by the other student. “I’m not comfortable around him.”
“What are you going to do?” she pleaded? “What are you going to do? You’re not going to do anything.”
“Well, we’re doing it,” said Ramsay, without elaborating.
The school board voted in January to allow the teenager accused of terrorizing to return to classes. He had been banned from the school since he was charged in late October.
Vance Pineo Jr. of Columbia Falls, chairman of the subcommittee, said he voted in favor of allowing the accused student to return to school. Pineo, who has a child who is a student at Narraguagus, said school board members had to be satisfied the student was not a threat.
“I had to be convinced,” Pineo said.
There also was discussion about improving communication between parents and school personnel about problem student behavior. The school district has a form that parents can use to report bullying activity, noted Ramsay, but he conceded that school officials “probably don’t do a good job” communicating with parents about the issue. He also suggested that schools could put up boxes to enable students to submit written bullying complaints anonymously.
The policy subcommittee will meet again in late March, but a date has not yet been set.