SOUTH CHINA — Erskine Academy senior Marissa Jordan got to see a more personal side of Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday when he talked about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father and his campaign to encourage Mainers to speak out against domestic violence.
Jordan, 17, of Whitefield, was one of a group of students who ate lunch with the governor and gave him a tour of the school before hundreds of students gathered in the gym to hear him speak. Jordan, who has an interest in politics, said domestic violence is one issue that can unite people from all ends of the political spectrum.
“I thought it was very moving,” she said. “I thought he was very open and had a lot to say.”
The governor who makes headlines with his controversial comments was soft-spoken at the school, where he spent about 10 minutes talking about the domestic abuse he suffered as a boy and his decision to run away from home at age 11.
“I got to the point where I had enough beatings,” he said.
LePage said he was 30 years old before he talked about the abuse and encouraged the students to talk to teachers or another adult if they need help.
He took questions from the students, who wanted to know what to do if they ask for help and don’t get it. He said if the state Department of Health and Human Services isn’t responsive, students should call his office and he would get to the bottom of it.
While LePage has been critical of Maine schools in some of his recent public comments, he praised the students and teachers at Erskine for the advanced placement courses the school offers. The 600-student school in South China, which serves local and international students, is the state’s second largest independent high schooln (Saco’s Thornton Academy is the largest, at about 1,100 students).
Early on in his administration, LePage made speaking out against domestic violence a priority. He’s addressed students at Chevrus High School, Penobscot Job Corps and Learning Works in Portland. Erskine Academy was chosen because the school has a reputation for working against bullying and domestic violence, said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
The students who met with the governor over lunch were members of student council and a group called Friends of Rachel, which was formed at schools across the country following the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. Rachel Scott, 17, was the first of 12 students to be murdered that day by two high school gunmen who then took their own lives.
Erskine senior Emily Dutton, 17, of Chelsea, is a member of Friends of Rachel, which teaches students to speak up if they see a student being bullied.
“If we see any bullying, it’s our job to stop it,” she said. “You see a lot of kids sitting alone at lunch. I go over and sit with them or bring them to another table.”
Along with a letter from the governor that emphasized his message about domestic violence — “stand up, speak up and man up” — the students were given purple bracelets with another saying the governor has often used in various ways while campaigning and as governor. When he was a boy, an adult once told him to remember 10 words: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”
Many of the students put the bracelets on even before the governor began speaking. Erskine Headmaster Michael McQuarrie introduced LePage by saying that in the school’s 129 years, it was the first time a sitting governor visited the campus. He said the governor’s presence at the school was an “affirmation of our school’s continuing efforts” to address bullying and domestic violence.
LePage told the students that sometimes those who are abused will face the difficult decision to leave and that they shouldn’t hesitate to call police if they need help.
“It’s a decision you need to make because you do not deserve to be abused,” he said.
Susan Cover — 621-5643