Here in Massachusetts, it took the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince to galvanize elected public officials into enacting a school bullying law. In the aftermath of considerable publicity over her life and death, the Massachusetts legislature and the Governor swung into action. As reported by the Boston Globe:
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.
A piece in Slate magazine by Emily Bazelon calls this “the country’s best anti-bullying law,” so clearly this is an important step forward.
But why did it take such a publicly visible tragedy to move us in the right direction? In Massachusetts, school bullying legislation had languished for several years, despite pleas from families that something had to be done about this destructive problem. (As the Globe further reported, present at the bill signing was the father of an 11-year-old boy who committed suicide last year.)
And what about the workplace?
Last month I wrote about a Wisconsin legislative hearing on the Healthy Workplace Bill in which committee members heard details concerning the 2008 suicide of Jodie Zebell, who took her own life after enduring months of workplace bullying at the clinic where she worked as a mammographer. This is one of a growing number of accounts from around the nation and the world linking workplace bullying to suicides. The terrible phenomenon even has a name, “bullycide.”
Based on media coverage of the Phoebe Prince suicide as well as various bullycides, some of us who favor workplace bullying legislation are asking whether publicizing such human tragedy is necessary to get our legislators to take these forms of abuse seriously. We are not unique in facing this question — no doubt advocates for protections against domestic violence and child abuse have confronted it too.
We do not want to exploit human suffering, but is bringing that suffering into the public arena the only way to spur enactment of the laws we need? Indeed, if Phoebe Prince was alive today, looking forward to the summer after completing another year of high school, it is unlikely that the school bullying law so eagerly enacted in Massachusetts would have seen the light of day.