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?”

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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.”

5 responses

  1. That bill is not nearly as strong as it needs to be as the legislature removed the requirement that teachers and other school staff report acts of bullying to school administrators. But even those requirements would not have helped Phoebe Prince as school staff clearly turned a blind eye to events before their own eyes. If people do not want to follow legal mandates, there’s not much to be done until a tragedy occurs.

    As it did in this case. …

  2. I am a parent of two teenagers. This is an outrage! Phoebe died a needless death. This could have definitely been prevented. School administrators and some teachers at South Hadley High School should be at least fired! Zero tolerance! The administrators and teachers of this school have permitted a hostile environment to evolve, and they never took corrective action. The highest priority and sense of urgency should be on everyone’s radar when it comes to the safety and welfare of our children. The teachers and school administrators are responsible for educating our children and providing a safe environment to learn. After a thorough investigation, I believe some of these South Hadley school administrators, teachers and parents have accountability and should pay by way of the criminal and civil court system. What disgusts me the most is that these criminal students still bullied Phoebe on her memorial websites. Where is the remorse for the death of Phoebe and her family from the parents of these bullies? Where is the remorse from the South Hadley High School Superintendant and Principal? Where is the remorse from the South Hadley School teachers? Human rights, civil rights and the life of Phoebe Prince has been violated and destroyed. All direct and indirect parties involved including students and adults should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I applaud the district attorney and hope she has the courage to bring justice to this horrific crime. This is tragic. May Phoebe Prince rest in peace…

  3. Pingback: Are girls getting meaner? « Minding the Workplace

  4. Pingback: It took the death of a child… « Minding the Workplace

  5. Pingback: On Phoebe Prince: Divergent accounts of a tragedy « Minding the Workplace

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