Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Death of a Fly

You may have seen the tragic story of a western Massachusetts high school student who killed herself after being the victim of a sustained campaign of bullying by some of her classmates. Now, at least 9 kids have been charged criminally for causing her death, among other things. Overreaction? You be the judge: 9 Teenagers Are Charged After Classmate's Suicide

Two boys and four girls, ages 16 to 18, face a different mix of felony charges that include statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly. Three younger girls have been charged in juvenile court, Elizabeth D. Scheibel, the Northwestern district attorney, said at a news conference in Northampton, Mass.

Appearing with state and local police officials on Monday, Ms. Scheibel said that Ms. Prince’s suicide came after nearly three months of severe taunting and physical threats by a cluster of fellow students.

“The investigation revealed relentless activities directed toward Phoebe to make it impossible for her to stay at school,” Ms. Scheibel said. The conduct of those charged, she said, “far exceeded the limits of normal teenage relationship-related quarrels.”

It was particularly alarming, the district attorney said, that some teachers, administrators and other staff members at the school were aware of the harassment but did not stop it. “The actions or inactions of some adults at the school were troublesome,” Ms. Scheibel said, but did not violate any laws.


Ms. Prince’s family had recently moved to the United States from a small town in Ireland, and she entered South Hadley last fall. The taunting started when she had a brief relationship with a popular senior boy; some students reportedly called her an “Irish slut,” knocked books out of her hands and sent her threatening text messages, day after day.

First, a message to the future high school classmates of my daughter: if you do half of what was done to this girl, you will be hearing directly from me. Maybe I'll get your parents involved, but I doubt that would do much good, as I would probably have to waste my time listening to excuses about Their Little Angel. A big problem with this sort of Kids Gone Wild high school is that the bad actors have never really had to deal with the consequences of their actions because they were spoiled at home and allowed to rampage at school by a see-no-evil staff. Well, I'm not the sort of lazy parent or a brain dead vice principal you're used to dealing with. I am a real believer in consequences for our actions. In fact, my handle back on the semi-pro wrestling circuit was The Consequences. At least, I think that was me. Anyway, keep that in mind.

More important, what the hell is going on at school these days? Not only was the girl getting bullied, the prosecutors note that there were plenty of adults at the school who were aware it was going on and did nothing to help her. Now, I realize that most school staffers are just lazy time-punchers whose union probably negotiated a work-rule that specifically exempt them from dealing with teen-age psychodramas, but ... come on! How can an adult watch a kid get hounded by a mob and not step in to help? Schools are big on teaching tolerance and respect, but when confronted with actual intolerance, teachers don't seem to want to bother. It's a damned shame.

Now, I know that bullying is a universal phenomenon, and it's worse in other societies; but the acceptance of school-age bullying by adults - especially the ones who work in the schools - is a real blight on the education system. It's not as much of a blight as bad teaching, apathetic parents, watered-down curricula, or an intellectual climate where Frank Rich is considered a "public intellectual;" but, it's pretty bad. Certainly, adults are not expected to tolerate bullying among one another. Why kids should is beyond me.A kid who is getting bullied is often also a kid who is unable to learn because school has become a hellhole for them. I swear a crackdown on bulling would raise the national IQ by at least one point.

A more open question is whether charging kids as criminals is really the way to deal with a bullying-induced suicide. Althouse presents the argument against such a step: What Did They Do?
Assume you are a teenager contemplating suicide. If you knew the 9 kids at school who were meanest to you would get criminally prosecuted if you killed yourself, would you be more likely to kill yourself or less? I don't know enough about the psychology of suicide to answer my own question, but my intuitive sense is that self-murderers — or some self-murderers — intend to deal a severe blow to the people they leave behind. And knowing your enemies will be prosecuted might spur you on.
All of that is very persuasive, except for one problem. We've got a dead kid on our hands, and she's dead because a group of (mostly) girls decided to pick on her after she was pumped and dumped by the local football hero. Call me crazy, but that kind of calls out for some sort of punishment, but the school and parents involved seem very uninterested in doing that. So you're left with criminal charges. Maybe it's heavy handed. Maybe the kids will eventually get let off (like that MO woman who used a MySpace account to pick on her daughter's friend) because the courts eventually decide that criminal charges are a bit much. But, at least now these kids are facing some consequences and will have to do their damndest to get out of it.

There's some hopeful talk in the linked article about passing legislation against bullying (and also "cyber-bullying," so you know the legislators are modern). That's great, but it's also sad commentary that school staff need the law to step in to tell them to help a child in need.

1 comment:

  1. Does this school have a school counselor? Did a teacher or teachers intervene the bullying? It sounds like these adults knew. They do not know how to intervene or their options? Very frustrating and sad. They could have stopped the girl to commit suicide and could have stopped these students to escalate their aggression and violence. Did they consult with clinical psychologist and/or social worker? It's not a matter of free speech. The bullying involving verbal and/or physical assault and harassment is unethical and should be illegal.