April 06, 2020

Team project for civil rights

On Dec. 30, the Bangor Daily News published a column criticizing the Civil Rights Team Project of the Department of the Attorney General. I am writing to describe this exciting program.

In the fall of 1996, the Department of the Attorney General initiated the Civil Rights Team Project with 18 high schools and middle schools. The project has expanded this school year to include a total of 58 schools located from northern Aroostook County to southern York County.

The project addresses the increasing problem of hate crimes and bias incidents within our schools. The number of reported school-related hate crimes and bias incidents reported to the Department of the Attorney General has increased yearly. In 1992, 16 percent of the complaints of civil rights violations filed with the department involved alleged perpetrators who were teen-agers or younger. In 1997, this number had risen to 40 percent. Even more disturbing, in the past two years, almost half of the civil rights cases filed by our office in Superior Court have involved teen-age defendants. These lawsuits frequently involved conduct which occurred in school or after school but between fellow students.

Our concern over the problem of hate and bias in schools has been heightened by the recognition of two common elements involved in the most serious school-related hate crimes. First, these incidents are preceded by months, and sometimes years, of a lower level of harassment, generally beginning with the use of the language of hate (racial, sexual, religious and homophobic slurs). Second, school administrators usually are unaware of the earlier harassment because the minority victims do not report the incidents. The result is both dangerous and tragic: harassment continues to build until it escalates into serious and potentially life-threatening violence.

The Civil Rights Team Program is an attempt to create a permanent structure within schools, jointly supported by law enforcement and educators, whereby students can work with faculty advisors to change the climate of intolerance and violence that exists among some students and, equally importantly, to create alternative mechanisms by which students can alert someone of harassment before the harassment escalates to serious violence.

The Civil Rights Teams consist of three students per grade plus one or two faculty advisors at each of the 58 participating schools. The teams, which attend fall and spring training programs conducted by the department, have two basic responsibilities. First, the teams develop educational programs for the school community on issues of violence and prejudice. Second, the teams establish avenues through which students who are not comfortable or willing to report harassment to teachers or administrators can instead notify the team. The teams have only one responsibility when notified of harassment and that is to pass the information on to school administrators. Teams have absolutely no responsibility for investigation or discipline.

Last year, Civil Rights Teams developed exciting and powerful educational programs on the need for acceptance and tolerance within schools. The efforts are being continued this year by the larger number of teams. Ultimately, this program is about making school a place where students can learn. Last year, team members wrote about what they hoped their teams would achieve. Their words speak most clearly about the promise of Civil Rights Teams:

“I was beginning to not want to come to school more and more because of people putting more and more people down. Now at least I know something is being done to stop violence and harassment.”

“I will not have to worry about people saying things like `the Nazis are going to come back and kill you.”‘

“The atmosphere at school will be changed. Kids will know how to tell a bully or someone using hate language that it is not OK with them.”

Students can not be expected to learn if they are scared and intimidated. Too many of the students who are victims of hate crimes or other types of harassment not only lose the opportunity for an education but, perhaps most sadly, lose their opportunity to be children. The Civil Rights Team Project is an innovative effort on the part of law inforcement and educators to empower students to take the responsibility to make school a safer place. In the words of one student team member:

“If we are successful, students will come to school able to learn because they will not be distracted by fear or hate. They will feel equal to others, able to concentrate and valued for who they are.”

I am personally proud of the dedication, enthusiasm and courage of the hundreds of middle school and high school students throughout our state who have volunteered their time to serve on Civil Rights Teams and try to make school a more accepting and nurturing place.

Andrew Ketterer is Maine’s attorney general.

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