A teenager's suicide, tragically reminiscent of Megan Meier's, has led to the creation of an anti-bullying task force in her western Massachusetts town. But the question remains: what will really keep kids from hounding each other to death?
The details of Phoebe Prince's death will make you despair a little for the human race. According to Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe, Phoebe arrived in South Hadley, Massachusetts from Ireland at the age of 15, and was singled out for bullying by a group of girls after she apparently had a relationship with an older boy. The girls called her an "Irish slut," mocked her by text and Facebook, and once threw an energy drink at her out of a car window. It was after this incident that Phoebe hanged herself in a closet. The bullying didn't stop with her death — the girls continued to make fun of Phoebe on Facebook after her suicide, and one gloated at a school function "about how she played dumb with the detectives who questioned her." The girls haven't been punished, and one parent asks, "What kind of message does this send to the good kids? How many kids haven't come forward to tell what they know because they see the bullies walking around untouched?"
Massachusetts state legislators are now trying to pass an anti-bullying law to prevent more deaths like Phoebe's. A similar federal law reached a House committee in October, but it has raised some free speech concerns. Meanwhile, the principle of South Hadley High School announced the creation of an anti-bullying task force — but the first meeting was postponed, officially to give the town more time to grieve. The National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) and ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi have created an online PSA addressing cyberbullying (still above), in which a teenage boy responds to cruel YouTube comments about his dolphin-themed poetry. But the ad itself, and the Circle of Respect program the NCPC is also promoting, may inspire more mockery from the kinds of kids who think bullying is funny.
How can authorities stop bullying, when the kids who engage in it are most likely to be the ones who least respect authority? How do you appeal to teenagers' decency, when some of them have so little compassion that they continue mocking a girl after her death? How do you combat behavior perceived as cool with PSAs, rules, and other tactics that every teenager knows are desperately uncool? Parents can help by modeling empathy early on, and school officials can punish the culprits so they don't continue to hurt others with impunity. But teenagers are, to an extent, their own society, and perhaps they need to change it from within. If no one laughed at cruel Facebook comments or lobbed energy drinks, bullies would lose much of their power. It's a lot to ask of kids, for whom social status is often more important than anything else, but as Phoebe Prince's death shows, it's more necessary than ever.