Bullies Charged In Teen's Suicide, But Questions Remain

Nine teens have been charged with crimes ranging from harassment to statutory rape in connection with the suicide of Massachusetts highschooler Phoebe Prince. But an anti-bullying statute is still pending, and some blame Prince for her problems.

Prince had been bullied mercilessly at South Hadley High School, apparently beginning when she had a relationship with a football player. The 15-year-old took her own life in mid January after a day that, the AP reports, "included being hounded with slurs and pelted with a beverage container as she walked home from school." Now two boys have been charged with statutory rape for having sex with Prince, four girls with crimes like harassment, stalking, and violating Prince's civil rights, and three other girls with delinquency. However, a Massachusetts anti-bullying bill that would specifically criminalize acts like cyberbullying has yet to be signed into law, and school officials as yet face no punishment for Prince's death.

According to an editorial in the Boston Herald, "Lawmakers can tinker with state law to their heart's content but the strongest anti-bullying message was the one that was delivered yesterday by Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel" in charging the nine students. The editorial continues,

That is not to say that state laws don't need updating. The pending anti-bullying law would update existing harassment and stalking statutes, for example, to include the use of electronic communications, including text messages and e-mail. And if lawmakers want to require that school districts adopt a special curriculum and train personnel in how to combat bullying behavior, well, that certainly can't hurt. [...] But none of that is a substitute for a methodical investigation and the courageous decision to bring charges in a case that will haunt the community of South Hadley for decades.

The charges of harassment and stalking certainly do send a strong message. But one amendment to the pending anti-bullying bill — sadly, left out of the current version — would have sent an even stronger one, by leveling a fine against school officials who ignore bullying. Prince's mother apparently complained to school officials about her daughter's torment prior to her death, and on the very day of her suicide, DA Schneibel says some harassment took place in front of a faculty member. Yet no adults from the school face any charges — if the fine had remained in the bill, it might not be so easy for future officials to look the other way.

Though the Herald says the prosecution of the teens sends the message "that the old excuses - 'It happens in every school' or 'It's part of growing up' - are simply no defense against the systematic harassment of a 15-year-old girl who should have found safe haven in the hallways of her own school," some are still making those old excuses. A commenter on the Times of London website writes,

There will always be cruel people in the world. We must take steps to limit the harm that such people can do. But we must also teach children to be prepared for and cope emotionally with bullying. It is dangerous to assume that children will be respectful of each other; such an assumption only perpetuates the problem of bullying.

The commenter's first sentence is certainly accurate — but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't require children to be respectful of one another, and punish them when they're not. Coping strategies are all well and good, but it's hard to see how Prince should have coped with what Schniebel calls "relentless activities directed toward Phoebe to make it impossible for her to stay at school," often conducted in full view of school officials who did nothing to help her. Anti-bullying programs in schools appear to be working — and as with all forms of harassment, the fairest and most effective way to stop bullying is to deter and punish its perpetrators, not to curtail the behavior of its victims.

9 Charged With Bullying Teen Who Hanged Herself [AP, via LAT]
Teenagers ‘Bullied Suicide Schoolgirl' [TimesOnline]
Justice For Phoebe [Boston Herald]
9 Teens Charged For "Unrelenting" Bullying [AP, via CBS]
Children Encountering Less Bullying, Study Finds [LAT]
Bullying Bill OK'd In House, 148 To 0 [Boston Globe]