In June of this year I reported on the suicide of 15 year old Phoebe Prince after being bullied by a group of high school girls that have come to be known as the "mean girls." Now, Massachusetts District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel has levied charges against the girls and two boys from the school.
Recently, stories have emerged that Phoebe was emotionally unstable prior to her suicide, the suggestion being that she may have taken her life regardless of the bullying. Ostensibly, the disclosure invokes the time honored mechanism of assassinating the victims' character and legitimacy. If it is found to be true that she was emotionally unstable or had emotional struggles then Phoebe will be very similar to many people who find adolescence a difficult period. If Phoebe was emotionally fragile, it makes the bullying that was perpetrated against her even worse. Nationally, the verdict is still out on bullying.
Many believe that bullying is an experience that everyone goes through, not a big deal. Some insist that being bullied makes you stronger or tougher. Others say, "boys will be boys." Or "it's just teenagers being teenagers, everyone goes through it." I do not agree with any of these sentiments.
Bullying is not a normal part of growing up and if it is, it shouldn't be. Phoebe is gone forever; her family must carry that heavy weight every day, a pain that will never end.
The connection between bullying and students harming themselves or others seems real. These events are so common that the word "bullycide" has entered the lexicon. The internet is littered with memorials, stories and foundations dedicated to the memories of young people that have ended their own lives as a result of being bullied. Recent anti-bullying legislation signed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick bears the names of two young students that took their own lives after being bullied.
While I am not a bullying expert, I have conducted an overview of the literature around bullying. Much of the research is not very encouraging. Some researchers believe that many bullying programs rely on the faulty belief that bystanders or witnesses will report bullying when they see it. If this were true, we wouldn't need a bullying program because bystanders would already be reporting bullying events, and they clearly are not.
While Phoebe's school could not make the "mean girls" decent, kind or tolerant, they might have been able to simply stop the bullying. There have always been elements in every society and setting that had to be guarded against or stopped. If you are a bully our responsibility is to help you to change, if possible. We also have a responsibility to protect your victims by stopping you. The cost of implementing comprehensive bullying programs will be high; the cost of doing little or nothing is unthinkable. Remember, all kids count.
Scot Hurlburt can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org