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I've been bullied and teased to deep depression. I've been kicked when I'm down

Saranac Lake's anti-bullying campaign is only a start

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It was a year ago last week that an incident of racially fueled bullying at the Saranac Lake Middle School made headlines and put school officials in the hot seat.

One year later, the school district has completed a series of diversity and anti-bullying programs, activities and training sessions for its students, staff, teachers, principals and school board.

The effort was designed to change the culture of the school district. As Chris Knight reports, however, school officials admit they still have much more work to do.

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Chris Knight
Adirondack Correspondent

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Two weeks ago, Saranac Lake High School senior Aaron Burdeau stood up and addressed the district's Board of Education. Reading from a letter, Burdeu thanked the board for allowing him to be one of its student representatives this year.

He talked about some of the causes he's been involved in, like the high school's diversity club, where he worked to promote gay rights.

It wasn't unusual for Burdeau to speak his mind, but that didn't mean school board members were ready for what he said next.

"I'm very passionate about gay rights because over the past few years I've come to terms that I am a gay teen," he told the school board. "I've hated myself and at times have wanted to go into the kitchen, grab a large butcher knife and just end it. I've been bullied and teased to deep depression. I've been kicked when I'm down, but I've found safe havens at school with the music department."

School officials later described Burdeau's decision to speak so openly "incredibly brave," although Superintendent Gerald Goldman said he wasn't surprised to hear that a gay student had that kind of experience.

"Sometimes school's a wonderful place for kids, and other times it can be toxic in terms of the social climate," Goldman said.

It's that social climate of bullying and intolerance that Saranc Lake school officials say they have been working to change over the past year through a series of programs, policy changes and anti-bullying education.

The effort was triggered largely by what happend at the end of the last school year, when it was disclosed that a 12-year-old girl, a sixth-grader at the district's middle school, had been the subject of vicious bullying because of her race. The girl's father is of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent.

Amy Oliveras, the girl's mother, said the abuse had gone on for a year.

"You know, racial name calling, boys calling her Muslim. Older girls teasing her, calling her nigger," Oliveras said.

It culiminated in an incident on June 21 last year, when the contents of the girl's backpack, which she had left outside the school, were smashed and a racial slur was written on a sidewalk using her deodorant.

Oliveras reported the incident shortly thereafter, but the slur wasn't washed off until more than a week later, sparking a firestorm of criticism against the school district.

School officials, including Goldman, responded with an apology. They admitted the district had failed in its responsibility to protect the girl.

"I was pretty ashamed that this kind of thing happened in the first place in our school, and I felt responsible for it," Goldman said.

The superintendent described it as a wake up call: "That was an event that caused a lot of us to look in the mirror and say, 'We have some work to do here.' It wasn't just around issues of race, it was around issues of sexual orientation, it was around issues of class."

In the weeks and months that followed, school officials launched a series of initiatives to try and "change the culture" of the school district.

That included a review of harassment, hazing and bullying policies, bringing in outside speakers and programs, and hiring the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, which held a series of training sessions for teachers, administrators and school board members.

Since bullying often happens outside the classroom, custodians, bus drivers and lunch monitors have also been trained to be more observant and report any harassment they see.

Goldman said students will also be expected to report bullying they witness, and could face consequences if they don't.

"The ideal for us is that kids are also intervening to not let this continue," Goldman said. "Just by saying, 'That's wrong. Stop it. Don't talk that way.'"

Now the question is, after a year of teachers and principals trying to get that message across, are students more likely to step in?

After they participated in a two-day peer leadership program where they took turns playing the parts of bully and victim, sixth-grade students like Jada Meadows said they were more likely to help someone being bullied.

"There's a lot of different roles in bullying that I didn't know about before we did this program," Meadows said. "I think it's good because now I know what I can do to help."

Eighth-graders at the school, like Katelyn Hewitt and Anuj Prajapati, say the programs they were involved with changed the atmosphere at the school. They also said they've seen less bullying.

"Since that incident, I've defintely noticed a more positive outlook since we've done all the programs here," Hewitt said.

"It's not as big a problem as it was," Prajapati said. "Last year, I saw a lot of bullying occur, but not this year. I haven't seen a lot."

Teachers also appear to have bought in to the effort to promote diversity. Middle school French teacher Beth Whalen said the training provided by the Vermont Partnership has motivated the district's staff. "It just makes us think," she said. "I don't think we're bad people. I don't think we were a school with a lot of bigotry or hatred at all. But it's easy to get comfortable and it's nice to be challenged."

Superintendent Goldman admitted the district still has a lot of work to do, but said positive steps were made this year. He said next year's effort will focus more on involving parents and the community, where many of the stereotypes that get brought into school are born.

"It's clearly a larger issue than just the Saranac Lake schools," Goldman said. "It's an issue for the whole community to grapple with or not."

As for the incident that started it all, police investigated what happened to Amy Oliveras' daughter, but no arrests were ever made.

Goldman said school officials were never able to determine "with any degree of certainty" who was responsible for the backpack incident.

Oliveras said that's left her frustrated. She's filed a notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, against the district, and says her daughter is still dealing with the affects of what happened.

"Its been a very tough year and as of now, I don't think I'm sending her back to Saranac Lake school," she said.

As for Aaron Burdeau, he said he got over the gay bashing he endured in high school by learning to accept who he is.

At the time it was going on, Burdeau said he didn't feel like there was a place for him to go or teachers who were willing to listen. That changed this year, he said, in part because of the incident at the middle school.

"Now that it's becoming like a spotlight thing, people are like 'OK, now we need to have places like that.' There are places to go, there are definitely people to talk to, places to go."

Burdeau graduated from high school on Friday and will head off to college in the fall.

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