The national fury over the suicide of Massachusetts bullying victim Phoebe Prince has led to demands for retribution against the nine South Hadley High School classmates who allegedly taunted and heckled the 15-year-old.
Many people are applauding the extraordinary decision by a Massachusetts prosecutor to file felony charges against Phoebe’s alleged tormentors. Citing “unrelenting” bullying, district attorney Elizabeth Scheibel charged two teen boys with statutory rape and a posse of girls with stalking, criminal harassment and violating Phoebe’s civil rights.
A freshman, Phoebe committed suicide in January after months of reported verbal abuse growing out of her brief dating relationships with two older boys. The romantic relationships apparently angered the boys’ other girlfriends, who allegedly led the terror campaign against Phoebe and even enlisted the boys in the harassment. Now, the boys are among the students charged.
Shortly before her death, Phoebe confided to a friend that “school has been close to intolerable lately,” according to court documents. The documents reveal that the girls called Phoebe an “Irish whore” and “stupid slut” and threatened to “punch her in the face.”
What these teens did was despicable, and they ought to be expelled and shunned by anyone with a shred of decency. Still, I worry about dealing with bullying in the courthouse rather than the schoolhouse.
Should the teenagers go to jail for calling a classmate vicious names and throwing a soda can at her from a car? Isn’t that the same sort of crude adolescent behavior that entices millions of people to watch “Jersey Shore” each week?
(Please note that the rape charges stem from sex that the boys allegedly had with Phoebe while they were dating. That, too, presents a slippery slope for the prosecutor since there are likely dozens of boys at South Hadley — and every high school — who have sex with younger girlfriends. Do we want to fill our prisons with acned Lotharios?)
As sympathetic as I am to Phoebe’s family in their quest for justice, it’s hard to know what was really happening in the young girl’s life. It’s often difficult to assess what family dynamics and personal issues play a role in a suicide.
Was Phoebe’s depression due solely to her cruel treatment at school or were other issues involved, such as the family’s recent move to the United States from Ireland? Was Phoebe homesick for Ireland and her friends?
None of these conditions would excuse the bullying, but they would help us understand what also might have been going on in Phoebe’s life.
A problem with criminalizing bullying is determining the standard: Do you base the criminal charges on the nature and extent of the bullying itself or on the response of the victim?
Defining bullying by the victim’s reaction presents challenges because some children may react to playground taunts that their peers would ignore. Still other children might suffer in silence from bullying that others would find unbearable.
I debated this issue with several readers last week, almost all of whom disagree with me. Among them is John E. Morris, a social sciences doctoral student.
“A student who is abused by his fellow students is not likely to confirm the abuse to adults, because of an underlying desire to be accepted by the very students abusing him or her,” Morris says. “It’s the behavior that occurs out of the sight of adults. It’s what kids do to other kids where teachers, parents and administrators can’t see.’’
In Phoebe’s case, the school staff appears to have tolerated the bullying or at least failed to clamp down on it. While Phoebe and her mother did report the repeated hazing to the school, it’s unclear whether anyone took it seriously.
Did the administration call in the nine students and their parents — middle-class families with college aspirations for their offspring — and advise them that one more incident would result in expulsion and an end to their college dreams?
If the school failed in its caretaking role, the parents can seek satisfaction through civil action, but adolescent behavior — even as brutal as this appears to have been — does not necessarily a felony make.
A danger with focusing on what these nine immature and nasty teenagers did is that we will not spend enough time looking at what the adults in the school didn’t do.
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