On Phoebe Prince: Divergent accounts of a tragedy

The school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Massachusetts high school student, has attracted national attention.  Six high school students stand indicted for alleged offenses related to her death.  For all of us interested in the harm caused by bullying behaviors in any context, this has been an unfolding story of interest. Especially with recent accounts of suicides tied to workplace bullying, our attention is ever more drawn to how abusive behaviors may lead to ultimate tragedies.

As we might expect, initial news reports about the death of Phoebe Prince did not delve into the background behind this tragedy. Standard accounts — this blog included — described the situation as one of a group of mean-spirited high school kids who ganged up on her until she couldn’t take it any more.

Since then, however, investigative writers have been digging into what happened, and the stories they are telling are not necessarily in sync with the prevailing narrative. Here are two worth reading:

Salon — Emily Bazelon

It was predictable that we’d see the “historical corrective” piece that contests the standard news story about bullying leading to Phoebe’s death. An investigative series by Emily Bazelon for Slate magazine (pdf version here) tells a different story of life at South Hadley High, both in general and for Phoebe Prince. That story includes some critical aspects of Phoebe’s own behavior, which included self-cutting and other attempts to harm herself.

Bazelon places great stock in claims by kids at Phoebe’s high school that accounts of bullying were exaggerated.  There was no organized campaign of bullying, she suggests.  She portrays Phoebe as a sort of young femme fatale who was able to swoop in on the popular boyfriends of older girls, suggesting that Phoebe, not the other kids, held the real power in the context of the school culture.

Blaming the victim?

Bazelon has been criticized as blaming the victim, and I found myself reacting along those lines at times.  In examining the very messy and messed up social milieu that one finds at many an American high school, she implicitly appears to be siding with the in-crowd. She paints Phoebe as the disturbed Other, which has the effect of distancing us from understanding how it may have felt to be in Phoebe’s shoes.

Is prosecution appropriate?

More persuasive is Bazelon’s suggestion that the District Attorney in the case may have rushed to judgment in the face of national publicity.  She makes a good case that the kids who bullied Phoebe likely had no idea that their actions could have such dire consequences.

Bazelon’s more forgiving attitude toward the students who tormented Prince isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  She reminds us that we’re talking about teenagers here, and that it’s easy to become the mob we claim to abhor.

Boston Magazine — Alyssa Giacobbe

While Bazelon’s article has its merits, I find more insightful a thorough investigative piece by Alyssa Giacobbe for Boston Magazine.  Giacobbe places the Prince tragedy in the context of the school’s overall culture, which includes previous instances of bullying at South Hadley High School that are underplayed in Bazelon’s account.

Pack behavior sans marching orders

By simply laying out the facts, Giacobbe demonstrates how pack behaviors can occur without explicit marching orders from a titular leader.  These kids — connected by existing relationships — bullied Phoebe, perhaps in the absence of an orchestrated campaign to do so.  (Recently an anthropologist friend, in an unrelated conversation, recalled philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of a strategy without a strategist, and the Phoebe Prince situation immediately came to mind.)

Bazelon and Giacobbe may agree that Phoebe Prince wasn’t subjected to a coordinated, orchestrated, organized effort to destroy her.  But Giacobbe, much more than Bazelon, appears to understand the group behavior dynamic by zeroing in on the frequency and intensity of the harassment directed at Phoebe by a group of kids with strong social connections.

Like a lot of teens

Was Phoebe Prince a carefree, All-American teenager living a storybook life before a group of bullies came around?  That would make for an easy story, but that’s not the case, and — if we’re being honest with ourselves — we know that a lot of children at the typical American high school do not fit that description. Instead, her story is grittier and more complex — that of a kid with some real issues who should be alive today.

The role of the law

The prosecution of the teenagers connected to Phoebe Prince’s suicide calls into question the appropriateness of using the criminal justice system to address bullying situations, whether in school or the workplace.  Obviously in cases involving physical harm, criminal laws may be implicated.  But they should be applied carefully.

For the most part, existing school bullying laws and proposed workplace bullying laws involve civil, not criminal, sanctions.  This is how it should be.  For reasons ranging from the complexities of many alleged bullying situations, to the realities of expecting already overburdened prosecutors to investigate such allegations, it would be undesirable to turn most claims of bullying into criminal matters. Personally, I would like to know more before deciding whether the criminal charges in the Phoebe Prince case were merited.

In the meantime, I feel some comfort in the fact that the issue of school bullying prodded the Massachusetts legislature to enact a law that some have praised as a potential model. Historically speaking, Massachusetts is known for its firsts, but this isn’t one of them. It has lagged behind the nation in recognizing school bullying as a threat to the health and safety of kids. But hopefully it now is addressing this problem in the right way.

4 responses

  1. I enjoy reading you blogs. I have a question regarding your conclusions regarding workplace bullying/mobbing (or bullying in general). Those of us who have been on the recieving end of bullying do see it as a crime. My question is what constitutes a crime? Would bullying be considered a crime in other cultures? As a law professor, you may be able to answer this. It would require further analysis of this phenomenum. Also are we afraid to call it a crime. Fox example, I have spoken to some police officers who dislike domestic violence laws. Some have expressed that the police should not become involved because it is a family matter. Are we saying the same about workplace bullying?

    • Elaine, legally speaking, a crime is simply an offense or transgression that a legislature deems appropriate to include in its criminal law. In terms of workplace bullying, only France makes the behavior a criminal act.

      Your comment about police & domestic violence highlights the difficulty of criminalizing workplace bullying generally. If an American workplace bullying law was enacted as a criminal rather than civil statute, it would be COMPLETELY left to the discretion of a prosecuting attorney, informed by a police investigation, as to whether to go forward. In addition, a target would still have to pursue a civil suit to recover damages, as criminal sanctions typically include the possibility of imprisonment, probation, fines, etc., but not restitution.

      That’s why I say that as horrible as workplace bullying can be, handling typical cases as criminal matters would likely have very disappointing and frustrating results for targets.

      That said, even today if workplace bullying goes too far (especially if it involves physical violence or some sort of theft of property), criminal law may be involved.

  2. Thanks for clarifying this issue. I have a better understanding of the legislative bill in the US. It would be interesting though to have a study of the impact of France’s workplace bullying law on its legal system, the target and employers. Keep up the good work.

  3. Pingback: Slate article on the suicide of Kevin Morrissey, Virginia literary editor « Minding the Workplace

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