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More in News
Maine outlaws cyberbullying
STATE — Cyberbullying in Maine schools is now against the law.
LD 1237, "An Act To Prohibit Bullying and Cyberbullying in Schools" signed into law by Governor Paul LePage on May 21, requires school districts to implement and enforce a policy that addresses bullying and cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying has become a serious issue alongside the rise in popularity of social media websites like Facebook.
The new law aims to address this by requiring school districts to adopt and enforce a policy designed by the state's Department of Education (DOE) or their own equivalent policy that explicitly addresses bullying in school.
It also requires districts to report substantiated incidents of bullying to the DOE on an annual basis.
Maine State Representative Terry Morrison, the bill's sponsor, says that the new law will make a big difference.
"It makes it against the law to bully, which is huge," says Morrison. "Now you can be prosecuted if you are a bully."
He says that the law is intended for school districts who are not confronting bullying to the degree they should.
The prohibition of bullying applies to incidents that take place at school, on school grounds or at any school-sponsored event.
It also applies to cyberbullying that "Takes place elsewhere or through the use of technology, but only if the bullying also infringes on the rights of the student at school."
This means that if the bullying affects a student's ability to function in school, even if it takes place entirely off of school property, the school district is required to take action.
SAD 17 Superintendent Rick Colpitts says that the district already enforces bullying that takes place outside of school property and and doesn't foresee any big change for SAD 17 because of the law.
The district has had a policy against bullying in place since 2006.
"If a parent came to us and said a student was being hurt through bullying that was occurring online and that bullying was now impacting them at school, we would intervene," says Colpitts.
Despite the fact that the law officially makes cyberbullying against the law, Colpitts says that it doesn't expand the authority of the school district to enforce it.
"The state says we have to intervene ... but the state hasn't given us any greater authority," he says. "The only thing we can do is suspend and expel."
The law outlines a number of alternative disciplinary measures that the school can use to address bullying in lieu of suspension or expulsion, including mediation, mental health counseling and community service.
But Colpitts says that the district does not have the authority to force these measures on a student.
For example, the only time a district can mandate a student to enter into counseling is as a condition of re-admittance to school after an expulsion, says Colpitts.
"We investigate, we involve the police, we talk to the kids, we bring in the parents, we make suggestions to the kids, but beyond that, I can't turn off their Facebook account, I can't slap a criminal lawsuit against them," says Colpitts. "What I can do is say 'if you continue to do this, we'll suspend you.'"
Morrison is convinced the law bolsters the district's enforcement capabilities.
He says that once the law is fully implemented, school districts might understand its full power.
"Once the department of education brings down the guidelines and they read down the law in its entirety, in detail, [school districts] will understand it gives them more tools than they had before," Morrison says.
Colpitts says that in general, bullying has been reduced at the high school over the last five years, but that there are way more incidents than the district would like to admit.
Results from the Maine Integrated Youth Health Assessment, a survey conducted every three years by the state, showed 46.5 percent of middle schoolers reported to have been bullied on school property. Around a quarter of high school students reported being bullied.
Nancy McClean, the OHCHS guidance coordinator, says that cyberbullying is a difficult problem for the high school, but that she has been seeing some positive signs of students speaking out against bullying, and is encouraging the trend.
"I don't like to tell them, but they really do have more power in this than the adults do," she says.
"If they speak up and say ... 'I don't want my community to be a place where kids feel unsafe and bullied and alone,' it will make a difference."