The Maine Human Rights Commission has ruled that a student at Brunswick Junior High School who said he was bullied for two years was discriminated against by the school district,

The commission on Monday found there are “reasonable grounds to believe that the Brunswick School District discriminated against a middle school student on the basis of perceived sexual orientation and sex.”

The commission ruled, 3-2, to adopt the recommendations of a 14-page investigative report that was done after the boy’s mother filed a complaint against the school district.

“Finally being heard by the commission and just knowing that someone is finally listening to him has been helpful. It’s been horrible,” she said, referring to the two-year fight. Although the mother is named in the complaint, her son is not. The Portland Press Herald is not naming either of them to protect the student against possible harassment.

The family first filed the complaint on behalf of the boy, a student at Brunswick Junior High School from 2010 to 2012, saying that he had been harassed physically and verbally for two and a half years, been “teased for having ‘man-boobs’ and called gay,” and faced constant disparaging remarks about his weight, appearance and lack of sports ability. The boy reported the incidents to his teachers, but the behavior continued, the report said.

According to the report, Brunswick School District officials said they investigated all the incidents that were reported and took several measures to prevent more incidents, including adopting anti-bullying policies, sponsoring “stand up to bullying” activities and providing training to the staff.

They also pointed out that the school had received local and national attention for its efforts to combat bullying and harassment, and in January 2013, the school’s plan for responding to bullying was posted on the state Department of Education’s website as a model for other schools on how to address bullying.

School district officials acknowledged that the boy was teased but said that was not based on his perceived sexual orientation or sex. Brunswick superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski did not return calls or emails seeking comment on Tuesday, nor did the school district’s attorneys.

Chief investigator Victoria Ternig, an attorney assigned by the Human Rights Commission to investigate the case, disagreed.

“The facts show that there were several incidents that occurred which could be identified as relating to the Minor’s perceived sexual orientation and/or his fitting into stereotypes about males (sex),” she wrote in the report. “Looking at the totality of the incidents that occurred, they are pervasive.”

Ternig also wrote that the verbal and physical harassment unreasonably interfered with the student’s educational environment.

Although the school did take corrective actions and had good policies in place to combat bullying, “however, it did not do enough in this instance,” Ternig wrote.

“Due to the number of incidents that occurred,” she wrote, “it is sensible to think that (the district) should have honed in on that fact to see if there was a bigger issue instead of handling each incident on a case by case basis for more than two and a half years.”

The boy was hospitalized and diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of the bullying and harassment, said Courtney Beers, an attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which represented the family. The boy stopped attending Brunswick Junior High in October 2012, and his mother said that she moved out of the school district so he could transfer to another school, where he is now in eighth grade.

“We are so thankful that the Commission was able to sort out fact from fiction and that they are willing to do what the Brunswick School Department and Brunswick Police Department failed to do, which is hold some of those responsible accountable,” she said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that it took filing a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission to get the attention of the Superintendent’s office.”

BATTLING BULLYING

Research has shown that bullying in general, and incidents in which students are targeted because they’re believed to be gay or bisexual, start early.

Nationally, about 20 percent of high school students and 40 percent of middle school students who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender report having been the victim of physical assault based on their sexual orientation, either real or perceived, said Sarah Holmes, co-chairwoman of the Southern Maine chapter of GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, which is based in New York.

“You’re talking about six to eight years of middle school and high school, when they’re not able to concentrate in school, be involved in activities and are fearful every day that something bad is going to happen, whether it’s name calling or some sort of physical assault,” Holmes said. “It interferes with the ability of the student to stay in school and be successful.”

One of the most effective measures is to have some sort of gay-straight-transsexual alliance for students, she said. About 40 percent of high schools in Maine have such clubs.

“Having a school club that students and allies can join provides a safe space for LGBT students and some visibility,” she said. “Even if LGBT students never go to the club meetings, knowing that such a club exists means a great deal because it shows that they’re not alone.”

Donald L. Patrick, director of the Seattle Quality of Life Group at the University of Washington, said that being harassed at a young age can have a devastating effect and can increase the odds of depression and consideration of suicide.

“This is a major issue,” he said. “They’re at a very impressionable age, where self-esteem and self-identity is formed. They need the encouragement that ‘you’re OK,’ whether you’re gay or not. I think there’s enough data to indicate that school policy has to be very strong not to permit this at all.”

CHANGES IN MAINE LAW

Maine schools in recent years have taken measures to protect students from bullying. Maine updated its laws in 2012 to address bullying in schools better; to add language about electronic bullying, or cyberbullying; and to give school officials more jurisdiction over bullying that occurs outside school hours and off school grounds. The law required schools to investigate all suspected cases of bullying and to keep records of the incidents. Each school also now has a dedicated “bullying czar.”

In 2013, the Maine Principals’ Association adopted a policy that allows transgender students to participate in athletics in whatever gender they identify with.

“Maine principals and assistant principals, individually and collectively, certainly want schools to be a safe place for all students,” said Richard A. Durost, the association’s executive director.

Jean Kelleher, president of the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies, which represents roughly 150 municipal human rights agencies throughout the U.S. and Canada, said groups such as the Maine Human Rights Commission are increasingly getting involved in bullying cases. Some agencies are contending with individual complaints, while others are collaborating with schools and community leaders on prevention.

“Many state statutes don’t include sexual orientation as a basis for discrimination or harassment, but that’s changing, too,” said Kelleher, an attorney and director of the Alexandria, Va., Office of Human Rights.

In the Brunswick case, the family and the school district now have 90 days to enter a conciliation process, a type of mediation with the commission, said Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission.

In a conciliation agreement, the commission could seek policy changes for the district, training for district employees or students, or a promise from the school district not to allow a hostile educational environment to persist.

If talks break down, the family then has 90 days to file a lawsuit against the school district in either state or federal court.

The student’s mother said she hopes other parents will fight back against bullying incidents.

“I wish more parents would stick with it and push through roadblock after roadblock,” she said. “You’ve got to keep fighting for your kid. If something is not right, don’t let it go — if not for your child, then for all the others.”

Portland Press Herald staff writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.


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