ELLSWORTH — The Ellsworth School Department takes reports of student conflict very seriously. That was the message Superintendent Dan Higgins wanted to impart to parents and others in attendance at a School Board meeting Tuesday.
“I can assure you all of our staff members care about kids and work each and every day to support their efforts to be successful,” Higgins said. “Unfortunately even with all these proactive programs and components in place, there are and will continue to be occasions where students do not get along with each other.”
Earlier in the meeting, two women spoke about what they said were concerns regarding the way cases of bullying were being handled.
Rachel Hicks, who said she pulled her daughter out of school after the sixth-grader was called the N-word by another student, said her daughter brought home unsigned bullying reports issued by school staff that Hicks said contained inaccurate dates and facts.
Hicks also said she had spoken to administrators but felt her concerns hadn’t been addressed.
“If I don’t know the procedures,” said Hicks, “where do I find that information? How do I know who to talk to? If it’s not you guys, who is it I’m supposed to speak to?”
“It’s apparent that there is a great deal of confusion, misinformation and misstatements about bullying and how it is handled in our schools,” said Higgins, reading from a lengthy statement.
First, he said, the behavior must be either reported or observed.
“We can only respond if we’re made aware of it,” said Higgins, noting that there is an anonymous reporting form on the school’s website.
Investigations into reports may be complicated, said Higgins, involving several students and competing stories.
For confidentiality reasons, said Higgins, “There will be some parts of the investigations and findings that cannot be communicated to all parents.”
Staff members are also prohibited from discussing what consequences may have been handed down to an alleged bully or perpetrator, Higgins said.
The superintendent reiterated several times that even when allegations ultimately don’t meet the bar for bullying and parents are not informed of what action administrators have taken that “does not mean the school has not done anything about the issue.”
“Has the behavior that was being done against me ceased?” Higgins said. “If it has, that’s strong evidence” the issue has been addressed.
School policies are based on state law, Higgins said, and staff members are trained annually in how to address bullying. He urged anyone who witnesses an issue to report it to school staff.
He also addressed the school’s cyber-bullying policy.
“When and where is the policy applicable when you’re dealing with social media?” Higgins said. “There’s a fine line with this,” because incidents may happen on personal equipment and off school grounds. He urged parents to be sure they’re aware of how children are using social media.
“It must be a community effort,” Higgins said. “We can’t do anything about it unless we know.”