NEW YORK – Children of military parents across Maine are being harassed in school, in some cases by teachers who claim the little ones' mothers and fathers are wrong to fight for their country, according to families' complaints.
Parents in at least five different locations have alleged that their children were subjected to verbal abuse, some of it from teachers "saying the war on Iraq is unethical," said Maine National Guard spokesman Maj. Pete Rogers.
"Family members were coming in saying their children were subjected to some abuse at school," said Maj. Rogers. "The kids were already suffering from losing a parent. We were very concerned with what's going on."
Supporters of the U.S. military expressed outrage at the stories of harassment, first reported by a local Maine television station.
"Any teacher who harasses a child for the job their parents do to protect all of us and our freedom should be fired, and as far as I'm concerned, deported," said Marc Curtis, Webmaster for www.military-brats.com. "They are supposed to be teaching, not brainwashing," he added.
"It's just beyond contempt -- what kind of person treats a vulnerable seven-year-old this way?" asked Joe Katzman, site administrator for www.windsofchange.net, where many readers have voiced their concerns over the issue. "Why is this kind of abuse tolerated?"
The complaints have been filed at Guard Family Assistance Centers in the cities of Augusta, Bangor, Calais, Caribou and Portland, and prompted the state's top educator to fire off a letter to superintendents and principals.
"I am asking you to remind school personnel that these are difficult times for our nation and that the families of military personnel need our sensitivity," Maine Education Commissioner J. Duke Abanese wrote in a letter on Tuesday.
Abanese said that although most educators are being careful in their teaching about America's response to a possible war in Iraq, some had been "less than sensitive" to military families.
"Ensuring the emotional and physical safety of all of Maine's students is first and foremost on all of our minds," said the letter, which urged schools to provide balanced information about the conflict and heed the physical needs of military children and families.
The problems apparently began after Maine Guard officials encouraged military parents to tell their children's schools when orders for deployment came, which would presumably allow teachers and psychologists to keep an eye on youngsters unequipped to fully handle their parents' departure.
The Maine Education Association -- the state arm of the National Education Association -- said "99.9 percent" of the state's 17,000 teachers properly reacted to that information, but conceded others may not have.
"I'd say a miniscule minority seems to have hit some kind of public nerve and is bouncing across Web pages and chat rooms in the United States," said MEA spokesman Keith Harvie. "It's a bit astounding to think that some comments which, I should note, have only been alleged and haven't been proved or demonstrated, are causing such a ruckus."
It's up to the local school superintendents and school boards to investigate and punish a teacher commensurate with the seriousness of offense and work record, Harvie said. "There may be a great divide of feelings, even among our members -- but they'll debate that outside of school. They're not going to do that around children."
But others, like Ohio public school teacher Kyle Farmer, said he wouldn't be surprised if the unions didn't do much to ferret out the problem teachers.
"We have an infrastructure set up now to protect people who are horrible teachers ... I can't believe any teacher is so poorly trained that they would think that that conduct is acceptable."
A number of older students have also taken up the issue.
"Teaching tends to be a profession comprised of people of a liberal mind-set," said Rick Kenney, a senior at Gardiner Area High School in Maine who has enlisted in the Army. "Take those teachers, stick them in this area, and the results are disappointingly predictable."
But whatever one's political views, said others, picking on children as young as seven is the wrong way to vent anti-war frustration.
"It seems there are always a few mean-spirited people out there who seize upon military children to vent their wrath at the war in question," said Mary Wertsch, author of Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress. "Our people in uniform, and certainly their little children, deserve all our compassion."