Bullying is not a rite of passage

Posted April 09, 2010, at 5:41 p.m.

Sometimes we learn how to behave by watching the examples of those around us.

Sometimes we learn how not to behave.

I wondered this week if school officials everywhere were learning anything at all from the painfully disturbing press interviews of Gus Sayer, superintendent of the South Hadley Public School Department in western Massachusetts, where a 15-year-old girl killed herself a few months ago after reportedly enduring months of bul-lying by other South Hadley High School students.

Gus isn’t coming across so well.

A beautiful freshman girl is dead and six other students at the same high school have been charged with various crimes —from statutory rape to stalking — that investigators say led Phoebe Prince to hang herself from the stairwell in her home in January.

Court documents and interviews with investigators indicate that the bullying of Phoebe Prince was well-known by students and faculty and that it had been reported to administrators by Prince herself and by teachers and that Prince’s mother had talked with a counselor at the school as well as another faculty member.

The bullying continued and investigators say on the last day of her life she was called an Irish slut and had a can thrown at her as she walked home from school by a girl who then drove away laughing with her friends.

Gus has been busy since he got back from vacation last week, holding interviews and telling reporters that there was little the school could have done to intervene in the bullying.

Two girls were disciplined a week before Prince died, and Gus told the media that to “our knowledge the action taken was effective in ending their involvement in any bullying of Phoebe.”

Maybe not, Gus.

Gus told the press that Prince had failed to alert others to the bullying.

Investigators and witnesses say that was far from the case.

Gus told the press that he thinks “there were probably a number of causes” for Prince’s suicide and was surprised that the local district attorney drew such a strong connection between the bullying she endured and the suicide.

There are lessons to be learned this week from watching Gus.

And then there is District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel.

In what very well may be an unprecedented move, Scheibel announced that criminal charges had been filed against six South Hadley students, including three facing juvenile charges.

In Massachusetts, as in Maine, there are no specific laws that address bullying, but there are stalking laws and harassment laws and civil rights laws, and Scheibel’s office drew upon them all.

Will all of the charges stick?

It remains to be seen, of course, but by having the courage and leadership to bring them, Scheibel has sent a statement that has resonated across the country.

There are lessons to be learned from watching Elizabeth Scheibel.

This week I talked to Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy.

“Its novel, that’s for sure,” he said of the charges against the teens . “We’ll be watching. We don’t have bullying laws per se in Maine, and these cases may well provide us with some guidance and assistance as we go forward.”

Everyone should be watching, not just this case, but the numerous others like it across the country.

Bullying is not a teenage rite of passage. There are things the schools can do, there are things that parents must do, and there are tools out there that can help those kids who are bullied better survive the ordeal.

One can only hope that officials at every school system in this state dusted off their bullying policy this week and gave it a close review. Phoebe Prince’s story is going to change things, and schools that may have had “something on the books” may be well-advised to make sure that those policies are succinct and up to date and that help is not just noted on paper but actually made available to students and that reports and suspicions of bullying are addressed rapidly and soundly.

Parents need to watch for signs of bullying in their own children. Children and teens who are bullied are often embarrassed and afraid to tell for fear the bullying will only get worse.

If parents do not get the help they need at the school level, they need to yell louder.

But perhaps the real answer to making headway into this tragic issue lies with the kids themselves. The bullying of Phoebe Prince was well known throughout South Hadley High School.

The leadership that will make a difference will come out of the hallways of the schools where the bullies lurk and it will come from their peers.

It will take time and continual commitment to get the students themselves to find the answers, but if student leaders make anti-bullying a real mission, things will start to change.

There are many lessons to be learned here, and the students themselves are in the position right now to learn them, strengthen them, pass them on and, once and for all, make a change.

Bullying is not a rite of passage and it is this generation of students who can say so.

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