Maine educators are lobbying to be legally recognized as public servants as a protection against harassment as administrators, teachers and school boards have faced backlash over policies from COVID protocols to school curricula.
Sen. Cathy Breen, D-Falmouth, introduced a bill, L.D. 1939, that would add school superintendents, principals, teachers and school board members to the definition of “public servants” in Maine’s criminal code. Public servants are currently defined as government officials, officers or employees and any person “participating as juror, advisor or consultant…in performing a government function.”
Educators, school board members and lawmakers said that adding them to that definition would further protect them against harassment and abuse that has reached a fever pitch during the pandemic.
The change would clarify that certain crimes aimed at government officials, such as obstructing government administration and improper influence, apply when school officials are the targets. Both crimes carry maximum penalties of 364 days in prison and a $2,000 fine.
“On more than one occasion, I have [had] threats to either myself or my home and family,” Steve Doucette, the dean of students at Valley Rivers Middle School and Fort Kent Community High School, told the Legislature’s criminal justice and public safety committee last week.
Most of the threats came electronically, but on a few occasions students came to his house and threw garbage on his lawn to express their anger at being punished for violating school policies, Doucette said.
Three members of the Ellsworth school board were granted protection orders last month after they said a parent threatened them during a Jan. 13 meeting in which he and five others said they would sue the board over its masking policy.
A Cumberland school board member said that the district attorney had to intervene last year when a community member took photos of her house and emailed them to her, other board members, the town council and police chief to object to her advocacy for equity work and indicate that he knew where she lived and would “steal something from her.”
“I was told there was a higher threshold to meeting harassment since I was an elected official,” Ann Maksymowicz said of her experience when she approached police during legislative testimony. “No one should experience similar disparate treatment, for any reason, let alone for serving the community they live or work in.”
One Hampden teacher testified that she has been the target of verbal and written harassment on local radio and national television since she was named the Maine Teacher of the Year last fall.
“My first and last name has been used in attempts to discredit my knowledge and practice in the [teaching] profession and damage my reputation by spreading misinformation and hyperbole around my philosophy of education and what occurs in my classroom,” said Kelsey Stoyanova, who teaches 8th-grade language arts at Reeds Brook Middle School.
At her award ceremony, students said Stoyanova is a caring teacher who instills a love of learning and helps shy students develop the self-confidence to participate in class and overcome a fear of public speaking.
Stoyanova said the award raised her public profile and that passing the bill would guarantee her and other educators an added layer of privacy and protection against harassment, which teachers nationwide have cited as a factor in deciding to leave the profession.
While harassment of teachers isn’t new, it reached new heights during the pandemic.
“I now live with a constant stress of potential harm, and near daily harassment from parents who believe they can do my job better than me,” Benjamin Harris, the principal of Bonny Eagle Middle School in Buxton, told lawmakers.
Democratic Reps. Steve Moriarty of Cumberland, Scott Cuddy of Winterport and Rebecca Millett of Cape Elizabeth also testified in support of the bill, alongside leaders of educational organizations including Educate Maine, Maine School Management Association, Maine Curriculum Leaders Association and Maine Education Association.
The Criminal Law Advisory Commission opposed the bill, citing the existence of current laws to protect against crimes like stalking, assault, criminal threats and harassment.