More than 100 people, including school officials and community members, turned out for a forum on harassment hosted by the Kittery School Department Monday night. Credit: Alex LaCasse | Portsmouth Herald

KITTERY, Maine — A turnout of more than 100 students, parents and school administrators at a Monday night forum is being called a great start to a discussion on how the Kittery School District can foster a school culture free of bias and harassment.

The forum was facilitated New Hampshire Listens, a civic engagement program through the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy. Attendees at the town community center were asked how students, parents, community members and staff could work together to create a safe, respectful, healthy culture in the school and in the community at large.

“Your presence here is testimony for your concern for Kittery and all of its residents,” said Bruce Mallory, the co-founder of New Hampshire Listens and a Kittery Point resident. “Our purpose is to create opportunities, spaces and processes for people to learn to listen to each other.”

Superintendent Eric Waddell said the outpouring from the community interested in advancing the discussion was a testament to how dedicated residents were in improving their school culture.

“The fact we had 100 community members here on a Monday night really, to me, sends a clear message that everyone recognizes ensuring our community is a safe welcoming place is definitely priority in Kittery,” said Waddell. “One thing I heard several times was that perhaps we need to seek input from people outside our community who can help us understand what it feels like to be the target of harassment and bias.”

Attendees broke into smaller groups and raised issues such as making efforts to increase diversity among the staff, ensuring the school curriculum adequately addresses cultural and historical issues like America’s negative racial history and looking for ways to celebrate individuals’ diversity.

Resident Mary Stevens pointed to survey data that reports only 30 percent of Traip Academy students believe faculty addressed “conflict, negative language and bullying in a positive way to help students,” and said high school students often internalize the mistreatment they endure and do not report it to an adult.

“The fact that only 30 percent believe an adult at the school is addressing harassment issues reflects the difficulty staff members have in knowing what to do when a situation arises,” said Stevens, who has three children in the Kittery schools and another who graduated. “Then add on the fact that this age group has a hard time reporting issues because they fear peer retaliation or that the issue won’t be adequately resolved.”

Traip senior class president Sommer Huntress participated in a group discussion with fellow students. She said students needed to work toward taking their online disputes in social media into a space where they could feel comfortable talking about the issues in person.

“The biggest thing we talked about was education; education of words and the meanings behind them. A lot of the time we use words and we think they have a negative meaning, a big one right now is politics. You don’t want to mention it because everyone is going to get angry about it,” said Huntress. “That isn’t how it should be; it should be an open discussion where people can explain their reasoning, and have people be OK with having a different viewpoint.”

Waddell said the forum was a first step in the schools’ efforts to engage the community to help foster a harassment- and bias-free school culture and community, and attendees were appreciative to have an open and respectful space to listen to one another.

“We need more of these community forums where we talk face to face with one another,” said resident George Dow. “On social media, everyone gets to write their one-line response on a subject but not a lot gets solved there. Here we get to constructively discuss these issues and also listen to each other, which doesn’t happen online.”

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