Four years after implementing its own anti-bullying law, Maine has become the focus of a national study seeking to determine the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs in public schools.

The Maine Department of Education and Maine Center for Disease Control announced Wednesday that the study will send researchers to six Maine schools to interview superintendents, principals and school counselors, followed by online surveys of officials at all Maine schools during the next two years.

Sarah Ricker, student assistance coordinator for the Maine Department of Education, said she has been in contact with every school district in Maine, in one way or another, in her two years of overseeing the bullying law’s implementation but that the study will give state officials a valuable outside perspective.

“All of this background work I’ve done makes me think that what Maine has for a policy is really good and there are other states that have reached out to me,” Ricker said. “Sometimes you just want some confirmation that we’re using good, best practices.”

But an October 2017 American Civil Liberties Union of Maine report alleging widespread bullying of students of color and protests against the bullying of a gay York High School student earlier this year indicate that Maine educators still have work to do.

[Report finds ‘constant barrage of bullying’ for students of color in Maine schools]

Education Commissioner Robert G. Hasson Jr. said in a prepared statement that the study will help ensure that Maine’s anti-bullying law “is effective in promoting the safety of Maine’s students.”

Maine’s law, enacted in 2012 and implemented in 2013, requires schools to adopt anti-bullying policies and report substantiated bullying incidents and responses to the Department of Education annually. The law also requires school districts to develop firm disciplinary procedures and to communicate to parents what measures are being taken to protect victims.

A 2016 investigation by the Bangor Daily News revealed that responses to bullying reports in Maine schools vary and include incomplete accounting of incidents, inconsistencies in incident tracking and no penalties for schools that fail to do the proper documentation.

Ricker said the program and compliance with it remain works in progress but as a result of the law, every school district now has a bullying policy and, more importantly, an avenue to conversations about a tough topic.

“We’re making a dent [in bullying],” Ricker, who said preliminary data she’s seen from a student survey in Cumberland County show fewer reports of bullying, said. “Just the word ‘bullying’ raises conversations. … It’s good that we’re talking about it.”

Ricker said the increased response protocols after a report from a student of bullying is also facilitating a chance for educators to identify and implement other supports for students, such as for their mental health needs.

In the first year after the law was implemented, just 87 of Maine’s 620 public schools reported at least one instance of bullying, hazing or harassment. In the 2014-15 school year, 121 schools reported incidents. There were 422 and 1,030 individual incidents reported during those years, respectively.

Nationally, data show that a quarter of sixth-graders report being bullied in school, with the most common incidents in sixth through eighth grades. The 2017 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, compiled by the Maine departments of health and human services and education, found that 22 percent of Maine high school students, 46 percent of middle school students and 43 percent of fifth- and sixth-graders reported being bullied at school.

Leslie Trundy, a guidance counselor at Morse High School in Bath, said the bullying law has brought conversations into the open — and given educators and counselors valuable resources such as online tutorials and suggested scripts about how to handle a bullying incident.

“I’ve started using those as part of my process,” Trundy said. “Kids are good at articulating what bullying feels like. [Those resources] help me say, ‘Can I help you talk about it?’”

But not everything about Maine’s law is helpful, according to some. Steve Marois heads a Maine-based group called Riding Steel Bikers Against Bullying, a group that visits schools to talk about acceptance, civility and respect. The group often shows up to events riding dozens of motorcycles and clad in black leather to demonstrate that we’re all different. Marois said he is contacted by parents regularly who are looking for advice — and many of them are frustrated with their local educators’ responses to bullying.

“All schools are supposed to be reporting and documenting, but not all schools are paying close attention,” he said. “There still seems to be some ignoring of documenting the details. … At first, a lot of schools start to downplay it.”

Marois said Maine’s law also changes and expands the definition of bullying to include single incidents and various civil rights violations, which he sees as confusing the issue. He said despite good intentions by schools, it’s up to parents and students to deal with bullying.

“At first, people are going to try to duck responsibility,” he said. “It’s up to the tenacity of someone to push and push and push until the law works for them. You’ve got to take action.”

Ricker said if she could improve one thing about anti-bullying protocols, it would be to make responses immediate.

“There’s so much going on in a school day that sometimes the actual physical time to do that immediate callback or response is difficult to find,” she said. “The big picture is just about the communication.”

The universities involved in the study in Maine are the University of Minnesota, Columbia University, the University of Iowa and Temple University.

Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.