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Bernice Bortell demonstrates against bullying and racism Thursday outside Mount Anthony Union Middle School in Bennington. (Peter Crabtree)
Bernice Bortell demonstrates against bullying and racism Thursday outside Mount Anthony Union Middle School in Bennington. (Peter Crabtree)
Bernice Bortell demonstrates against bullying and racism Thursday outside Mount Anthony Union Middle School in Bennington. (Peter Crabtree)

ELIZABETH A. CONKEY, Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- A small group of demonstrators gathered Thursday at the local middle school to protest what they say is district-wide bullying and racism.

Staked out near the entrance to Mount Anthony Union Middle School, the demonstrators, who were, for the most part, grandmothers to biracial children, aged 4-13 years old, held poster boards stating, "Free Hugs," "We are all like M&Ms: Different color on the outside, same on the inside," and "Don't turn your back on a fellow student. Help stop bullying."

The demonstration followed the apparent suicide of a 12-year-old girl and MAUMS student last Monday. The cause of her death is still under investigation by local law enforcement officials.

Demonstration Organizer Bernice Bortell speculated that the death might in some way have been connected to bullying.

"She was black," Bortell said, "So it's possible."

Bortell is the grandmother to a 13-year-old, biracial, Mount Anthony Union Middle School student who, she said, is frequently bullied at school.

"When your child comes home crying from school, something just has to be done," she said, explaining that her granddaughter has brought the bullying to the attention of MAUMS faculty and stuff on numerous occasions, only to be told to "ignore" the bullies.

"That isn't enough. They're asking for help and they're not getting it They're not getting the help they need. We have to be their voice if nobody else is going to help them," Bortell said. "We want our kids to go to school with their heads held high, not looking down to the ground like they're ashamed of themselves, of their heritage. That's not right."

Elizabeth Moffatt, another demonstrator, explained that her granddaughter has also experienced bullying.

"My granddaughter is only 4. She can't speak for herself," Moffatt said. "So, we're speaking for her and all of these kids."

October is national Bullying Prevention Month, so the timing of the demonstration was apropos.

However, Bortell said she believes the issue of bullying in schools should be brought to the forefront year-round.

"There should be awareness every day, not just during one month every year," she said.

"That saying, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,' well, words do hurt. People need to know that we're not going to tolerate this."

MAUMS Principal Tim Payne said he introduced himself to the demonstrators Thursday morning but did not recognize them as parents or guardians who had reported any instances of bullying in the past.

"They told me they were out there simply to raise awareness about bullying," Payne said. "I agree with them. We already encourage our students to tell an adult when they are being bullied or if they see someone being bullied. We can continue working on this problem and drawing attention to it so that all students feel comfortable coming to school."

Payne added that he invites the demonstrators or any other middle school parent to contact him directly with any bullying issues so that he may address them.

Bortell said she and her fellow demonstrators plan to gather at Mount Anthony Union High School Friday morning and will gather at area elementary and pre-schools in the near future.

"We all just want what's best for our kids," said Bortell. "We want them to feel safe at school."

Contact Elizabeth A. Conkey at econkey@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @bethconkey