PLYMOUTH – Stephanie Cascone has done everything in her power to keep her three daughters safe. She makes sure they eat healthy food and get proper immunizations. She raises them in a rural setting with farm animals and chores to teach responsibility. She monitors their Internet usage and even drives them to school to shield them from improper language and behavior on the school bus.
In late September, however, Cascone felt helpless at first and then outraged when her 10-year-old daughter Mariah was accosted by a bully at school.
Cascone is now embroiled in a battle with school officials who are feeling the tug of responsibility for both Cascone’s daughter, the victim, and the 12-year-old special education boy who allegedly threatened to kill her.
It is a fine line that school districts across the country walk, and recent headlines of school violence in quiet, rural areas similar to Newport have done nothing to soothe Cascone’s fears.
A 2003 study by the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that one in four students are afraid to go to school and that student bullying is one of the most frequently reported discipline problems at school.
“I am terrified for my daughter’s safety,” Cascone said this week. “Bully prevention? What a joke.”
“I’ll … kill you.”
The incident that has Cascone’s daughter fearing school occurred on Sept. 20 at Sebasticook Valley Middle School in Newport, when the special needs boy dropped his glasses on the way out of school.
When Mariah stepped around the boy because other students were pushing from behind, he slammed a door in her face and said “I’m going to crush you. I’m going to f…g kill you.”
Mariah, normally a “tough cookie” according to her mom, was so frightened that she ran to her mother’s car, hysterically crying. “I believed him,” Mariah said.
“If it was anyone else, we might have let it go,” her mother said. “But this boy has a history.”
Cascone said she witnessed the same boy use a bat intended for a pinata at a birthday party on other children. She said he also allegedly broke into her brother’s home and stole a gun.
“When I went to the police to file a complaint, they were very aware of who he was,” she said.
Newport Police Chief Leonard Macdaid confirmed Thursday that the boy had been charged as a juvenile with assault in September. Results of that charge are confidential. In addition, Macdaid said the department had received numerous complaints against the boy involving other alleged assaults.
In the Cascone incident, Macdaid said the Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute because the incident was spontaneous and not premeditated.
Although the child has been suspended and is now required to have a one-on-one aide with him at all times, the Cascones say that’s not enough, that the SAD 48 district has let them down by not removing him permanently from the school.
“They are being handed an opportunity to stop something before it happens, and they are dropping the ball,” Cascone said.
“We feel bad for him,” she added. “He needs help. This is not about punishment. It is that all of the children are in danger.”
Mariah put it simply: “I am a 10-year-old kid. I shouldn’t be afraid to go to school.”
A balancing act
SAD 48 Superintendent William Braun said the Cascone case illustrates the fine line that school administrators walk when trying to protect the safety and rights of all students. He said every district in the state grapples with balancing the same issues.
“School safety and school violence are topics at every gathering of superintendents,” he said.
And sadly, he added, incidents like this are happening more and more often and involve younger and younger children.
“In the past couple of weeks, we’ve had lockdowns in every one of our [eight] schools,” Braun said. Potentially dangerous situations ranged from strangers in the woods outside school buildings to threats between students.
Braun described a litany of misbehavior by first and second graders that would have a veteran police officer shaking his head. “I’ve never seen anything like this at this level,” he said.
Very young children have set fires in the schools. A seven-year-old picked up desks and chairs and hurled them at other children.
Another second-grader attempted to grab the gun of the school resource officer. “Can you imagine a second-grader in handcuffs? It’s a nightmare,” Braun said.
The boy specifically named by the Cascones, however, “has never hurt anyone at school,” Braun said. There have been behavioral problems but never actual violence.
“I’ve got a one-on-one ed tech with him at all times. He is not allowed recess. He has none of the freedoms the other kids have,” Braun said.
The superintendent said that if an out-of-school placement had been appropriate for the child, the district would have done it. “Unfortunately, threats are not unusual for 12-year-olds.”
Braun said that when the recent national cases of school violence are examined, it is not the bullies that are rampaging; it is the bullied. “They often feel they are righting a wrong,” he said.
As an administrator, Braun said it is his responsibility to advocate for both the Cascones and the alleged perpetrator.
“We have 2,238 students in our district, and we must make sure we not only keep each one safe, but that we provide each with a meaningful education.”
Braun said the schools try to meet everyone’s needs, but with a rural, diverse population, that is not always possible.
“If a student is HIV positive, they don’t have to tell me. If a student is a sexual predator, they don’t have to tell me. What I’m dealing with all the time is the unknown,” Braun said. “It is a constant battle to keep people safe.”
The days when what the teacher or principal said was law are long gone, Braun said. Parents routinely challenge teachers’ versions of classroom incidents.
Because of sensitivity to diverse beliefs, there are no longer Christmas parties. They are called “holiday celebrations.” Halloween events are now banned. When a new health curriculum was proposed, one parent stood up at a meeting and screamed at the school board, “You cannot tell my child to wash his hands.”
“I actually got death threats over hygiene,” Braun said, shaking his head.
Still, the district has implemented a 12-year anti-bullying program. It is centered on self-esteem and kindness in the lower grades, turns to “catching kids being good” in the middle school years and follows through with goal-setting at the high school level.
“School is not supposed to be the parent,” Braun said, “but we end up being the parent, the guidance counselor, the health care provider, the teacher, the friend. And we will do everything to keep every child safe.”
The bottom line, Braun believes, is really about setting boundaries and limits that should begin at birth in the home.
“In the long term, I can see the day coming when we will have an individualized education program for each child, special plans for every single student. And that is going to be expensive.”
Even knowing the difficulties administrators face doesn’t help the Cascone family deal with their fear.
“She shouldn’t have to go to school every day and be scared like that,” Stephanie Cascone said. “I would think that a death threat would be unacceptable in school.”
For Mariah, the incident has become a betrayal of trust.
“They lied,” she said this week, referring to administrators’ promises that she wouldn’t have to deal with the bully.
To minimize disruption, Mariah, not the bully, was told to change classes. “I am not the one that did anything wrong,” she said. “I had to move my class, and they have asked me to move my locker.”
Referring to the 12-year-old that threatened her, Mariah said, “He walks by me in the hallway, glaring at me. He was in the lunchroom and kept staring at me. Before this happened, we had a bully prevention day at school. I know now that it was meaningless.”