The school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, age 15

Phoebe Prince was a 15-year-old girl at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts who was so mercilessly bullied by fellow students (in person and online) that she took her own life.

With the indictments this week of six young people who allegedly played a role in her abuse, this story is gaining national attention as a tragic example of school bullying.  You can Google her name and find plenty of news coverage (the Boston Globe is actively pursuing the story), but I want to center on one aspect of what happened, or more accurately, didn’t happen.

Prior knowledge

In announcing the indictments, district attorney Elizabeth Scheibel acknowledged that administrators, faculty, and staff at South Hadley High School had been aware of some of the behaviors being directed at Prince prior to her suicide.  As reported in the Globe:

“The investigation has revealed that certain faculty, staff and administrators of the high school also were alerted to the harassment of Phoebe Prince before her death,” the district attorney said. And “prior to Phoebe’s death, her mother spoke with at least two school staff members about the harassment Phoebe had reported to her.”

…”From information known to investigators thus far, it appears that Phoebe’s death on January 14th followed a tortuous day for her, in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse,” Scheibel said.

…”The harassment reported to have occurred that day in the school library, appears to have been conducted in the presence of a faculty member and several students, but went unreported to school administrators until after Phoebe’s death,” Scheibel said.

A sad, recurring story

This is a recurring story in school bullying situations: Schools are made aware of what is going on, yet little or nothing is done to intercede.  In most instances, thankfully, the absence of adult intervention does not lead to suicide.  However, many severely bullied children carry these bruises and scars for years, perhaps for a lifetime.

Monitoring behavior in the modern American school is a tremendously difficult task, especially now that many kids have an online life that may be shielded from their teachers and school officials.  We can’t put it all on the schools — it takes a village, right?

In this case, however, it appears the school was receiving warning signs.  The lack of an effective response is developing into a major piece of this story and raising questions about the ethical and legal obligations of schools to address bullying behaviors.

You’ve got to be taught

One thing is clear: Kids are learning early in life that organizations often will not intervene when confronted with reports of mistreatment.  They are taught to think, if the folks in charge aren’t going to do anything, then why should I get involved?

This pattern also carries into our adulthood.  How many employers ignore, or are complicit in, the commission of bullying, harassment, and discrimination?  How many workers quietly acquiesce as a co-worker is mistreated?

We have some evidence of what happens at work through the landmark 2007 public opinion survey on workplace bullying conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International pollsters.  One of the key findings in the survey is that when workers report bullying behaviors to their employers, 62 percent of the time the employers either ignore the situation or make it worse.

School bullying legislation

The only shred of a silver lining to emerge from Phoebe Prince’s death is that support is mounting for a strong school bullying bill in Massachusetts.  Recently the Massachusetts House unanimously approved a school bullying law, and  it appears that this legislation finally has gained the traction it needs to become law.  How pathetic that it took a tragedy of this magnitude to provide that impetus.


Boston Globe article on indictments of 9 teens and prior knowledge of school officials

More from the Globe on community reaction and school’s response

South Hadley school superintendent disputes DA’s claims about lack of response

WBI/Zogby survey

Related post, “Are girls getting meaner?”


Also, courtesy of Gary Namie at the Workplace Bullying Institute blog, this guest post by California school administrator Matt Spencer on how workplace bullying in school settings affects the educational experience of students.


April 24 update: The Boston Globe reports that the South Hadley schools have released a draft of an anti-bullying policy:

South Hadley schools have drafted a new antibullying policy that requires all staff members to report “any bullying they see or learn about’’ and pledges to “promptly and reasonably’’ investigate any allegation of harassment.

The draft policy defines bullying as acts that cause physical or emotional harm, place students “in reasonable fear of harm,’’ or create an “unwelcoming or hostile environment at school for another person.’’

May 3 update: The Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has signed a school bullying bill:

The law prohibits any actions that could cause emotional or physical harm to students, including text messages and taunting over the Internet. It also mandates antibullying training, for faculty as well as students, and requires that parents be informed of incidents at school.

It also requires every school employee, including custodians and cafeteria workers, report incidents of suspected bullying and that principals investigate each case.

For additional commentary on the enactment of the Massachusetts law, see my post, “It took the death of a child.”

France’s Workplace Bullying Law

French employment attorney Claire Stievenard provides a very helpful commentary on France’s workplace bullying law in Workforce Management Online.  Here’s an abstract:

France is in the vanguard of addressing the issue of bullying in the workplace, but the European Union supports the movement and other national regimes are close behind. As more companies go global, human resources and other executives should at least become aware of the phenomenon, and France’s particular take on what constitutes bullying. If you have employees in that nation, it will become hard to avoid.

Hopefully articles like this will help to sensitize American readers to the fact that workplace bullying protections are not novel or radical when viewed from a global context.

To access the article you’ll need to register, but it’s well worth the effort, as the Workforce Management website is a rich source of information on human resources and employment relations.

When employers enable and cover up sexual abuse

Let’s suppose that a school learns that one of its teachers has been routinely sexually assaulting students.  What should it do?

The easy answer is to fire the employee and contact the police, right?

Different set of rules

Compare that scenario to the latest revelations facing the Catholic Church, where yet more of its responses to alleged priest abuse of scores of young parishioners — this time in Wisconsin, Germany, and Ireland — are making the news. The Church is playing the role of victim, accusing the media of engaging in a witch hunt and whipping up a public frenzy.

For those of us in Boston, this is a tragic and outrageous tale of same old, same old.  A decade ago, Boston’s ultimate self-proclaimed victim was Cardinal Bernard Law, who not only escaped criminal prosecution for his central role in the scandal, but also landed softly after his resignation as Archbishop of Boston in the form of a cushy job in Rome, courtesy of his employer.

Morals, ethics, and human dignity

When viewed in the clear light of day, this is hardly an attack on faith. Rather, the Church’s conduct must be seen as an issue of organizational integrity and employment practice.

After all, sexual assault is sexual assault, regardless of whether the attacker is wearing a robe, and if it’s one of your employees committing the abuse, you have a duty to act.  Employers who enable and cover up such conduct are engaging in monumental violations of morals, ethics, and human dignity — the antithesis of what any decent organization, faith-based or otherwise, should be about.

Yahoo news summary on latest allegations

Harvard Business Review blogs on workplace bullying

USC management professor Nathanael Fast, writing for the Harvard Business Review‘s Research blog (link below), discusses workplace bullying and concludes with his recommendations for creating a bully-free workplace:

  • “When hiring managers, set the bar high with regard to interpersonal skills and leadership experience.”
  • “Help new managers feel comfortable in their high-power roles.”
  • “Remind managers to focus on core values.”
  • “Design jobs in such a way as to avoid heaping unrealistic expectations onto individual leaders.”
  • “Educate yourself and your managers about the psychological consequences of power.”

It’s a good general list, but even if an organization does all five things, bullying may still be a problem.  Bad managers can still slip through a good hiring process, and peer bullying can occur even with the best managers on board.  In addition, if employers don’t empower their human resources offices to take bullying seriously (even when the alleged bully is a high-ranking manager), then targets inevitably will be sacrificed and abandoned.


Fast’s HBR post

Fast’s co-authored study on abuse of power at work (with UC-Berkeley psychologist Serena Chen) was the subject of an earlier post.

Echoes of 1930s Europe: Emerging Mobs

This blog has championed the connecting of different types of abusive behavior, grounded in the conviction that bullying, mobbing, and harassment occur in many settings, often while showing similar underlying qualities.

These behaviors are not limited to those of a given ideology.  After all, for example, horrific workplace bullying can occur in white shoe corporate settings as well as in grassroots social change organizations, in blue and red states alike.

But the violence, threats, and denunciations coming from the extremist right wing in connection with the health care legislation are disturbing and must be called out. Much of this behavior is being targeted at elected officials who had the temerity to support expanding health care coverage to all Americans:

Violence and threats

As reported by Politico:

Reps. Louise Slaughter and Bart Stupak have received death threats.

A tea party participant published what he thought was Rep. Thomas Perriello’s home address and urged disgruntled voters to “drop by” for a “good face-to-face chat.”

Vandals broke windows at Slaughter’s office in New York and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s office in Arizona.

And angry voters are planning to protest this weekend at the home of [Ohio Rep.] Steve Driehaus — who’s already seen a photograph of his children used in a newspaper ad published by reform opponents.


House GOP minority leader John Boehner isn’t above appealing to the rhetoric of death and banishment for pro-life House Democrats who supported health care reform, such as Rep. Driehaus.  As Politico further reports:

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) warned that anti-abortion Democrats would suffer politically if they voted for the health care bill; he singled out Driehaus, saying he “may be a dead man” and “can’t go home to the west side of Cincinnati” because “the Catholics will run him out of town.”

Limbaugh is fanning flames

No surprise here. For Rush, it’s not enough to disagree on policy. As evidenced by this Associated Press report, you have to put some healthy hate into it:

“We need to defeat these bastards. We need to wipe them out,” Limbaugh said. “We need to chase them out of town….”

Nancy Pelosi at the stake

NPR reported about a Republican fundraising message built around House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s role in ushering through the health care bill:

The Republican Party has sent out a new fundraising e-mail featuring a bold headline against a backdrop of flames; it reads, “Fire Nancy Pelosi.” The e-mail urges people to send money so that the GOP can win the 40 House seats it needs to take the speakership away from Pelosi.

The GOP is using the imagery of physical burning to target those with whom they disagree.   Witch hunt?  Nope, in their eyes she’s already been tried and convicted.  Now it’s time for some witch burning.

Racial and homophobic slurs

From the CBC News, here’s a report on the bigoted slurs directed at members of Congress who supported the health care bill:

Earlier, as black congressmen walked to Capitol Hill for Sunday’s big health-care debate, some were spat upon and called the “N” word and other repulsive racist slurs.

A particular target was John Lewis of Georgia, a Democratic congressman who was being pilloried because he called national health care the last missing civil right.

Another was the openly gay committee chairman Barney Frank of Massachusetts. He was showered with anti-homosexual epithets as he made his way to the chamber.

Demonizing the President

It’s not just the liberals who are becoming alarmed.  Former Rudy Giuliani speechwriter John Avlon expressed concerns about how “Obama Derangement Syndrome—pathological hatred of the president posing as patriotism—has infected the Republican Party”:

On the heels of health care, a new Harris poll reveals Republican attitudes about Obama: Two-thirds think he’s a socialist, 57 percent a Muslim—and 24 percent say “he may be the Antichrist.”

Totalitarian mindset

Even though the GOP lost the November 2008 election by a large margin, as pollster James Zogby explains, they are using totalitarian language to suggest that an elected majority is somehow imposing its will on the electorate that voted it into office:

A Republican talking point repeated ad nauseam during yesterday’s debate pounded on the theme that they, and they alone, had the right to speak for “the will of the American people.”

…Of course, the American people have spoken, and in November 2008 elected a Democratic White House and Senate and House of Representatives.

The idea that the minority party represents the “will of the people” (not some of the people, but “the people”) is the seedling of a totalitarian mindset.

1930s Europe

It is not an overreaction to suggest that these behaviors yield disturbing comparisons to 1930s Europe.  An extreme and not insignificant minority is responding to being on the losing end of the democratic process with threats and violence…and on the issue of health care, of all things.

We are at a scary time in this nation’s history, and it is up to good people of all political beliefs to stand up and object to this unpatriotic attempt to destroy civil society.


Politico article on violence and threats

AP article on Limbaugh and Tea Partiers

NPR story reporting GOP Pelosi ad

CBC News on slurs directed at Congress members

Avlon column

Zogby article

Illinois Senate passes Healthy Workplace Bill for public employees

Last week, the Illinois Senate passed a version of the Healthy Workplace Bill for state and local employees.  The vote was 35-17 (see link below).  Here’s a brief of assessment of what this means for efforts to enact protections for severely bullied workers:

Big Step Forward

Winning a floor vote is a big deal.  It shows that the Healthy Workplace Bill is gaining support and traction.  Special kudos go to our advocates in the Illinois, who have had to navigate efforts by anti-gay activists attempting create an exemption that would allow them bully others due to their sexual orientation.  Fortunately, our team was able to save the bill from being sabotaged in that way.

Public Sector Workers Only

My one lament is that this version of the bill does not cover private sector workers, who are just as vulnerable to workplace bullying as their public sector siblings.  In fact, those in the private sector tend to be less protected from mistreatment on the job because they have much lower unionization rates and are more likely to be employees at will.


But I’ll happily take this great progress.  The next step is the Rules Committee of the Illinois House of Representatives.  Here’s wishing the best to our advocates in the Land of Lincoln.

Link to Illinois bill history

Doctoral student workshop on workplace bullying, June 1, Cardiff

I’m delighted to see that in conjunction with the 7th International Conference on Workplace Bullying and Harassment (June 2-4, Cardiff, Wales — see link below), top researchers on workplace bullying will host a pre-conference workshop for doctoral students.  Here are some of the details:

In conjunction with the 7th Biennial Workplace Bullying and Harassment Conference being held in Cardiff from 2nd – 4th June 2010, the IAWBH will arrange a one day workshop for PhD students on Tuesday 1st June.

The workshop aims to provide doctoral students studying subjects associated with workplace bullying and harassment with an opportunity to engage with state of the art presentations on subjects focusing on conceptual as well as methodological issues.

In addition, the workshop will provide the participants with the opportunity to discuss aspects of their own research with fellow doctoral students of bullying and harassment in small groups or ‘surgeries’, each facilitated by an expert in the field. The presentations will take place in the morning whilst the ‘surgeries’will be held in the afternoon. A detailed programme for the day will be made available early in 2010.

For more info on the June 1 pre-conference workshop, go to the conference website, click “Agenda/Programme,” and scroll down to Doctoral Students’ Workshop.

In order to inject workplace bullying into the mainstream of our employment relations vocabulary for the long run, we need to encourage and support graduate and professional students who are interested in conducting research on this and related topics.  That’s why this workshop is such a welcomed development.

APA announces 2010 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards

From a recent post by Dr. David Ballard at the American Psychological Association:

2010 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award Program Winners

The APA has announced the winners of its 2010 Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award Program, recognizing North American employers who excel in these five categories:

  • “Employee involvement”
  • “Work-life balance”
  • “Employee growth & development”
  • “Health & safety”
  • “Employee recognition”

The winners are:

American Cast Iron Pipe Company (ACIPCO), Alabama
Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare (TMH), Florida
Advanced Solutions (HP Company), British Columbia
Toronto Police Service (TPS), Ontario
Leaders Bank, Illinois

2010 Best Practices Awards

The APA also has recognized 10 companies “for a single workplace program or policy that stands out for its facilitation of a psychologically healthy workplace.”

For complete information and links, see the APA’s Good Company blog.

Americans and Taxes: Pay Less, Expect More

New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt (link below) nailed it this week in a piece on taxes and expectations.

Citizens of richer societies generally prefer more government services…. With their basic needs met, they want a military to protect them, good schools for their children, comfortable retirement for the elderly, medical care even when it isn’t profitable and a strong social safety net.

As people seek more from the government, they have been willing to pay higher taxes to secure these services and benefits.  Rising levels of taxation in the U.S. through most of the 20th century demonstrated that willingness.

Lower taxes, growing demand

However, that is not the case today:

Taxes are no longer rising. They fell to 18 percent of G.D.P. in 2008 and, because of the recession, to a 60-year low of 15.1 percent last year.

Nevertheless, we still want more:

Yet our desire for government services just keeps growing. We added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Farm subsidies are sacrosanct. Social Security is the third rail of politics.

Who will pay?

This has led to a growing disconnection between our demand for government services and benefits and our willingness to pay for them:

This disconnect is, far and away, the main reason for our huge budget problems. Yes, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the recession and the stimulus have all added to the deficit. But they are minor issues in the long run. By 2020, government spending is projected to equal 26 percent (and rising) of G.D.P., mostly because of Medicare and Social Security. Taxes are on pace to equal just 19 percent.

The anti-taxation drumbeat of the past 30 years coupled with growing expectations of getting something for nothing are setting into play a social, political, and economic train wreck.  It will not be pretty.

Leonhardt column

Chief People Officer on psychological torture at work

Chief People Officer Kevin Kennemer serves up a compelling blog entry about a recent televised social experiment in France where participants in a fake game show were ordered to administer electric shocks to those giving wrong answers.  (It’s a remake of sorts of the famous 1960s Milgram experiment which tested obedience to authority.)

The results are stunning and disturbing.  Kevin then relates the gruesome truth to psychological torture in the workplace.

Questions to ask

Kevin concludes by suggesting that we ask these questions about our own workplaces:

  • Does your company employ leaders and/or employees who lack that strong inner conscience to resist  shocking behavior?
  • Do you think your coworkers are capable of inhumane treatment?
  • Do psychologically abused employees find themselves stranded and secluded from their coworkers?
  • What do you do if you see an employee being psychologically abused by a supervisor?
  • Going too far?

    Some might think it a stretch to relate these experiments, with their obvious connections to the “just following orders” justifications of the Nazis, to abusive behavior at work.

    I disagree.

    While certainly bullying and abuse at work cannot be equated with genocide, the underlying human instincts can be shockingly similar.  Severe, malicious mistreatment at work often carries with it eliminationist tendencies — a desire to rub someone out of the workplace — even if they apply “only” to one’s career versus a life.

    Check out Kevin’s post, including the YouTube video link.

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