Teen’s suicide after repeated bullying sparks debate

15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself in January, just two days before the school’s winter cotillion.
15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself in January, just two days before the school’s winter cotillion.

A teen’s suicide in bucolic Western Massachusetts has resulted in several of her former classmates being charged with crimes ranging from disturbing a school assembly to civil-rights violations, harassment, and statutory rape. And now the school system finds itself at the center of a heated controversy over its response to the ongoing abuse.

Tormented daily at school and online by a group of “mean” girls and boys, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself in January, just two days before the school’s winter cotillion.

“It appears that Phoebe’s death on Jan. 14 followed a tortuous day for her, in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse,’’ said Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel. “The events were not isolated, but the culmination of a nearly three-month campaign of verbally assaultive behavior and threats of physical harm.”

Sadly, the bullying didn’t stop with the pretty Irish immigrant’s death. Even after Prince committed suicide, students reportedly continued to mock Prince and make hateful comments about her on social media sites—even to the point of disrupting an online memorial set up in her honor.

Prince’s crime? Apparently, per news reports, the teen queens ruling the school’s social scene didn’t think a newcomer like Prince should date a popular football player. As a result, she was repeatedly referred to as an “Irish slut,” among other nasty names.

While school officials weren’t charged with any crimes, Scheibel said that Prince’s abuse was “common knowledge” and criticized teachers and administrators for not doing more to intervene.

“The actions or inactions of some adults at the school are troublesome,” said Scheibel, noting that the police investigation “revealed that certain faculty, staff, and administrators also were alerted to the harassment of Phoebe Prince before her death.”

The issue of who knew what, and when, has spawned outrage in South Hadley, Mass. Security at the school has been increased. Some are calling for the principal, superintendent, and school board chairman to resign.

School officials maintain they found out about the bullying shortly before Prince’s death. The district attorney seemed to refute these claims during the press conference announcing the criminal charges against the four girls and two boys involved in harassing Prince.

Statements issued by Christine Sweklo, South Hadley Public Schools assistant superintendent, indicated district officials had not been given the opportunity to review new information gleaned from the criminal investigation prior to the district attorney’s press conference.

With the superintendent away on vacation and pressure mounting, the district seemed to struggle to tell its side of the story.

Statements were issued to the news media but weren’t posted online, even though the district’s web site was touted as new and improved.

After days of silence, the superintendent, school board chairman, and principal stumbled badly during interviews, particularly on television.

Sounding dismissive, defensive, and insecure, these individuals reinforced rather than refuted the stereotypical view of aloof, out-of-touch bureaucrats.

Yet a closer read of written materials released by the school and district reveal a more caring, competent, and compassionate response.

“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.

Bullying often is seen as the first step on a continuum of escalating mental health concerns, including violence to self or others, according to child and adolescent psychiatrists. Depression, anxiety, insomnia, digestive problems, low self-esteem, and other symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are common after-effects of bullying in children, teens, and adults.

Girls are more likely to engage in verbal or relational bullying, in which the victim is denigrated and ostracized by a social group or clique. Boys are more likely to engage in verbal and physical bullying. In some cases, bullying and harassment turn into physical or sexual assault.

While many bullying victims don’t commit suicide, thoughts of suicide are common, according to researchers and child psychiatrists. Victims often carry permanent scars from the emotional, relational, verbal, physical, and online abuse they endure from bullies, experts say.

Although Prince’s abuse occurred primarily at school, the young teen did experience electronic harassment as well. Cyber bullying and cyber stalking can be particularly painful for teens.

The 24-7, constantly connected nature of their lives makes it difficult to escape or find a safe haven. Hateful text messages, humiliating Facebook comments, and online threats don’t stop just because the bullies and victims aren’t in close proximity to each other anymore.

The anonymity afforded by many social media sites and other digital communications only makes matters worse, as bullies feel free to say and do things online they’d never do in person or at school.

A 2007 Pew Research Center study shows that 32 percent of online teens have experienced some form of electronic bullying. Tactics range from posting embarrassing photos without permission (6 percent) to having private material forwarded without permission (15 percent).

About 13 percent of online teens also report receiving threats or have been the victims of digital rumor-mongering, the same study showed. Similar to bullying that occurs at school or in the community, perpetrators of online bullying tend to be the same age as their victims.

For Phoebe Prince and other victims of abuse by bullies, where and how the bullying occurs matters little. They just want it to stop.

As educators charged with helping keep students safe from emotional and physical harm, we can and should do more.

As community leaders charged with creating a more just society by forming future citizens, we can’t dismiss cruelty as “normal” teenage behavior. It’s not.

Award-winning eSchool News columnist Nora Carr is the chief of staff for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools.

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