USM freshman Danielle Askin-Goodwin sat on the panel alongside some Portland High School students. The group discussed stories of school violence both in Maine and around the country, while some of the students shared insights into what can be done to prevent violence.
“When you hear someone using degrading, homophobic, racist, or any form of harassment, it’s a good time to bring up discussion on it,” said Goodwin.
The students took part in last week’s conference, which brought almost 200 community members and educators to the Portland’s Holiday Inn-By the Bay.
Among the crowd were USM faculty, staff, and students who provided depth to the conference by asking questions and leading discussions on the topic of violence.
While members of the USM community may not regularly deal with violence or situations that evoke violence, the University is committed to creating a safe environment for students, faculty, and staff, according to Stephen Wessler, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Hate Violence.
“We’re at the top of the list for colleges being forthright and aggressive in addressing violence issues,” said Wessler. “There is a strong commitment from the president on down.”
Though there haven’t been many serious violent incidents reported this year, last year was plagued by a series of random assaults on the Gorham campus and two hate crimes.
Wessler shares his knowledge of violence with a number of University departments, including the College of Nursing and the College of Education. Wessler believes his efforts will prepare students who will work directly with children and adults upon graduation to handle potentially violent situations.
“The idea is to provide students and faculty with the skills necessary to speak out and put an end to potentially violent situations before they arise,” said Wessler. “It’s important for educators to respond quickly and effectively to any sort of harassment before it turns violent.”
The University has created numerous workshops to help faculty confront potentially violent situations, according to Ira Hymoff, senior clinical psychologist for University Health and Counseling Services.
“Fortunately we haven’t had to deal with much violence at USM,” said Hymoff. “My main concern is for people in the front line, financial aid secretaries, bookstore clerks and others who occasionally must deal with irate students over money, they’re the ones being harassed most of the time.”
USM Police are also staying ahead of violence. Both Lieutenant Jim Stanhope and Detective Ron Saindon were involved in a training program certified by the attorney general to handle hate crimes and other acts of violence. According to Stanhope, the first step they take in dealing with criminal threats, graffiti, or violence is to treat it as seriously as any other case.
After investigating, officers refer the crime to the attorney general’s office for further action.
An ever-increasing number of students and groups at USM have expressed intolerance for violence. The Safe Zone program headed by Sarah Holmes, GLBTQA coordinator, is dedicated to ending violence.
Safe Zone provides training for any interested member of the USM community with a goal of providing multiple places students can go to discuss harassment or violence that they have seen or experienced.
“Children are always going to use words that hurt others,” added Gadbois. “If someone continually says ‘hey that’s wrong,’ then eventually children will get the message that it is.”
Wessler concluded the conference by making two suggestions that he believes would prevent harassment from becoming violent. The first, a preventative technique everyone is capable of is to simply speak up when you recognize someone is being harassed. The second is to verbalize and name the problem whether it’s ignorance or something more serious.
Staff Writer Ryan Milliken can be contacted at: [email protected]