“It’s very clear that we need a district and community-wide focus on developing civility in our young people,” wrote South Hadley Principal Dan Smith in his February newsletter. “A number of people spoke about the need for parents, students, and school personnel at all grade levels to work together to proactively address this issue.”
I suspect that South Hadley’s poor showing in the media and underutilized web site are owing as much to a lack of high-pressure television news experience and a dearth of professional communications staff as they are to a lack of caring.
School and district officials maintain that all personnel intervened swiftly and appropriately to any and all reports they received about Prince’s torment.
Although it’s a typical crisis response, the rush to blame someone—anyone—for Prince’s suicide won’t bring her back or make the last few days of her life any less painful. It’s also not fair to anyone involved, including Prince.
Teen suicide is always disturbing and heartbreaking. However, most psychiatrists will tell you that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint exactly why an individual chooses to end his or her life. Typically, there’s a complexity of mental health issues involved—issues that might or might not be explained fully by bullying.
In a classic case of perception becoming reality—and not just shaping it—the worldwide view of South Hadley High and its surrounding community is overwhelmingly negative. It will take years, if not a decade or more, for the school to rebuild its reputation.
The district has a number of proactive plans in place to address bullying concerns district-wide and in the community.
These include the formation of a citizen task force, reviewing policies and procedures, offering more training, and communicating more openly with all key publics, starting with students.
While these efforts are commendable and underreported in the news media, the district might want to consider making a clean break with the past by apologizing (verbally as well as in writing and on the web site) for not intervening sooner or more effectively.
Although overdue and likely to cause the district’s legal counsel heartburn, research has shown that apologizing when mistakes are made (including sins of omission as well as commission) tends to reduce litigation.
If the district’s review of the facts shows that school personnel did everything humanly possible to prevent such a tragedy from occurring, or that additional intervention likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome, and if district officials are confident that all policies and procedures were followed to the letter and need no improvement, and if they believe that South Hadley High School has no systematic climate or cultural concerns that need to be addressed, then they might get by with simply expressing care and concern for the victim.
All of those “ifs” create a pretty high bar to leap over, however. Assuming for a moment that South Hadley High School and South Hadley Public Schools are like most public schools and districts nationally, they probably have some additional work to do. And even if everything was done perfectly every single time in response to Prince’s bullying, the fact remains that a young girl decided that dying was better than living.
With about one-third to one-half of all children experiencing bullying as some point during their school years, it’s time for all of us who care about children to take more proactive and assertive action in responding to reports of bullying. This includes other students, parents, mental health professionals, business leaders, elected officials, and other community members, along with educators. Schools can’t bear the sole responsibility for eradicating bullying and other social ills.