Back-to-School 101: Bullying and harassment - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Back-to-School 101: Bullying and harassment

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Brooke Spence says she knows what it's like to be harassed.

"The day after I came out I had ice thrown at me and I was just called some horrible names," she said.

The BFA-St. Albans senior says it was a low point in her high school career.

"I didn't feel safe going to school for a while and I don't think that-- that is right. I am a high school student; I have every right to be there. I want to do something with my life and it was scary for me, high school was a very scary place for a while," Spence said.

It's a reality Outright Vermont volunteer Xander Long is eager to tackle, and this year he's starting early.

"If we start early we can keep it from getting into the high schools and to where it gets to be a little bit of a bigger problem in terms of asking people to change their behavior," Long said.

The Burlington High School junior is committed to creating safe, healthy environments for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. He's spending the school year as a peer education intern and is the force behind a new pilot program that will train high school students to talk with middle-schoolers about harassment and why it's not OK.

"We're really trying to empower youth and ask them, you know, what's happening in the middle schools, what do you want to bring in and what do you want that to look like," Long said.

Harassment deals with behavior against someone in a "protected group." They're defined by things like gender, race or sexual orientation. Bullying relates to behavior intended to ridicule, humiliate or intimidate students not in a "protected" category. In Vermont, schools are required to have policies that address both behaviors. Folks at the Agency of Education and groups like Outright agree that policies are great, but enforcement is key.

"You know the policies have enough teeth, but the enforcement of those policies do not. So, many times we hear from youth that it is great that there are policies to protect them and to protect their school experience, but if nobody is enforcing those policies they're kind of useless," said Melissa Murray, the executive director of Outright Vermont.

"Dealing with bullying, hazing, harassment is a school community affair it, it's not just enforcing a policy, it's a whole series of relationships that are at stake here," Charles Johnson said.

Johnson is Vermont's Safe Schools coordinator and sits on the state's hazing, harassment and bullying task force. He says he's regularly working with schools to help teachers, administrators and students respond to specific problems and prevent future ones. He says measuring success is not an exact science.

"It's sort of like how do we measure health? There's a sense of well-being, a sense of peace, a sense of being safe, a sense of learning, that I enjoy coming to school; those are signs of success," Johnson said.

Spence says she's seen improvements, but it will take a broad approach to get bullying and harassment out of schools.

"It needs to be so much bigger than this because there is so many other than just queer issues, like kids with disabilities, and having a twin with a disability, that was a very touchy subject for me," she said.

These students agree they may never fully eliminate the problem, but say they're trying and are ready for progress.

"Bottom line is there are going to be people you don't like and people that don't like you," Spence said, "but that doesn't mean somebody needs to be attacked for what makes them different."

"Hopefully feedback from the community is where we are going to see if we have really succeeded in terms of what conversations come up and what people reflect on," Long said.

Outright hopes to get its new peer education program off the ground in Vermont schools by the spring.

Vermont has a special task force that's focusing on issues involving bullying and harassment. It's looking at "on the ground strategies" to improve school climates, as well as working with young people to tackle the problem.

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