FREEPORT — What started as a community discussion has evolved into a committee out to promote a healthy, safe culture for students in Regional School Unit 5.
Members of the Tolerance and Respect Project, a subcommittee of Freeport Community Services, are parents and grandparents, business owners and community leaders, administrators, health and education professionals, librarians and police officers. Their mission is to promote civility, compassion, kindness and understanding in the schools and throughout Freeport, Pownal and Durham.
Trace Salter, a parent and TARP member, said they hope to provide programming and support for students, families, teachers and school administrators.
She said she became aware of concern about negative online behavior about two years ago when her son was in middle school.
“The behavior was classically categorized as bullying,” she said. “I was astonished that there was such hateful language used by children. This is much more prevalent than I would even realize.”
Middle School Principal Ray Grogan said TARP helped to fund an assessment by Steve Wessler, founder of the now defunct Center for Prevention of Hate Violence.
He said Wessler found that the levels of aggression surrounding harassment involving gender, sexual orientation, and bullying fell within the range of what is seen at other schools.
Since then, he said, the middle school has adopted a new media health curriculum and School Resource Officer Michael McManus has become very active in the classroom.
McManus said he enjoys working with high school and middle school students and said TARP is a great committee with a grassroots effort to address bullying and social issues in the community. He teaches students about substance abuse issues, school policies, penalties and laws surrounding drug offenses, online safety, bullying and being a good community member.
“Change happens when the schools, community members, parents and students work together to address problems in a positive way,” he said. “There have been amazing parents, teachers and community members involved in this program.”
Dede Bennell is a TARP member and the RSU 5 Service Learning and Aspirations Coordinator. She said she is passionate about teaching students about anti-bullying practices and disability awareness.
She said consolidation has been difficult for many students in the school district and has witnessed how online problems can often turn physical. She said mentoring programs like Seeds of Independence and Boys to Men are positive ways to reach out to students. Workshops, panels and group discussions are helpful too, she said.
“We are looking for ways to impact as many students in the RSU 5 community as possible and bring all three communities together,” Bennell said. “And even more than that, we are working to reduce sexism and violence while trying to make our schools a tolerant and respectful place.”
Salter said there is a need to address these issues in all schools in the RSU 5 district and in all three communities.
“TARP is not just about preventing bullying. It is about promoting compassion, respect and civility and cultivating an appreciation for differences, therefore creating a safer environment for (students) to flourish as they are developing into adults,” Salter said.
The next TARP meeting will be Thursday, Dec.1, at 4 p.m. at the Freeport Community Library. The meeting is open to the public.