The health and well-being of our children is critical to our future. This year in the Legislature, we passed vital laws to make sure our kids are safe and healthy both at home and in school.
One of my bills aimed at tackling the bullying issue in our schools passed with unanimous bipartisan support.
I introduced LD 1306 to review and overhaul Maine’s bullying laws because of the outcry from parents and students alike around this issue. As someone who was bullied all throughout school, I know the long-lasting pain that bullying can cause. I want to do everything I can to ensure young people feel safe in school, feel accepted, and feel like they can be true to themselves without fear of retribution from their peers. No parent should have to feel compelled to take a child out of a school because of bullying. If there are proper protocols in place for prevention and intervention, bullying will be dealt with swiftly and appropriately.
When I was a member of the Maine State Board of Education back in high school, appointed by then-Gov. John Baldacci as its first student member, bullying was one of the many topics I advocated for changes on.
My bill, which is now law, directs the Department of Education to create a stakeholder group to recommend improvements to Maine’s bullying laws for schools. The Education Commissioner will work with a stakeholder group to collect data, understand what is needed to prevent bullying, and ensure there are resources available. By February 2020, the education commissioner will report the findings of the stakeholder group and its specific recommendations to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee and the rest of the Legislature for further legislative action. This gets the ball rolling.
The goal of this effort is to obtain data, analyze issues and report on solutions to comprehensively address how school districts across the state are responding to bullying in their schools.
In other news, we’ve seen a steady rise in smoking, through vaping products, in young people not just in Maine but across the country. Deaths in other states have even been linked to certain vaping products. When I speak to students in classrooms in our area, more and more kids are telling me about the issue of vaping. This year, we passed a statewide ban on vaping on school grounds to ensure there is no ambiguity in the rules and to keep it out of the hands of our children. Obviously, no one law is going to totally prevent vaping or smoking among youth, but the Legislature must do its part, along with parents, teachers, and law enforcement, to encourage safe behaviors.
We also passed new safeguards to protect children from drinking water that’s contaminated with lead. Exposure to lead is very dangerous to children in particular. They can suffer damage to the brain and impaired growth as a result of contaminated water. Previously, only schools on well water were required to test for lead contamination in drinking and cooking water. This changes that to ensure testing is taking place in all of our schools.
Hungry kids can’t learn. This year, we made the online application for free school meals universal and statewide, expanded “breakfast after the bell” programs, prohibited shaming students who can’t pay for meals, and made sure more kids in need get free lunches. We took steps to help children manage their own well-being by providing families and teachers with support to help kids with behavioral challenges and by adding mental health education to the curriculum.
On a personal level, I was also proud to co-sponsor a bill that bans the dangerous practice of conversion therapy, protecting LGBTQ youth in Maine. This should have been banned a long time ago, but finally we had the votes to make it just a sad chapter in our history. Young people should be supported and empowered to be themselves, not forced and pressured to change everything about themselves.
We talk a lot about attracting youth and young families to Maine. It starts with having policies like the ones listed above that support them.
Justin Chenette is serving his second term in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He is the chair of the Government Oversight Committee, co-chair of the Democracy Reform Caucus, and a member of the Environment and Natural Resources and Ethics Committees. He is also a Citizen Trade Policy commissioner. Outside the Legislature, Justin is a Real Estate Agent with the Bean Group, Marketing coordinator of Saco Sport & Fitness, and is vice president of Saco Main Street. Follow updates at justinchenette.com.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco