The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Bully Pulpit

The Tragic Case of Phoebe Prince Demands a Strong Response

It is time to preach an old-fashioned sermon about bullying. Studies suggest that bullying in schools happens once every seven minutes on playgrounds and once every twenty-five minutes in class. A study funded by the U.S. Justice Department announced on March 1 that the percentage of children who reporting physical bullying over the past year had declined from nearly twenty-two percent in 2003 to under fifteen percent in 2008.

This is good news yet it stands in ironic contrast to stories like those of Phoebe Prince, a fifteen year-old high school student who committed suicide this past January after enduring three months of unrelenting stalking and harassment by a group of nine fellow students in the town of South Hadley Massachusetts. Her case is far from unique.

Individuals subjected to persistent abusive behavior, such as bullying, frequently suffer from long term emotional and behavioral problems, including loneliness, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, increased susceptibility to illness, and sometimes suicide, according to Mona O’Moore of the Anti-Bullying Centre at Trinity College in Dublin. An estimated fifteen to twenty-five children commit suicide every year in Great Britain due to bullying.

Most of the bullying experienced by Prince occurred on school grounds – directly in front of a faculty member who neither intervened nor reported it, in at least one case. The victim’s mother also had alerted administrators to the problem. The natural response, in such cases, is to blame the school and seek punishment for the adults running it.

This is perfectly valid, in my opinion, if only because it produces results. Marlene Snyder of Clemson University’s Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life notes that anti-bullying programs are most effective “in schools where adults really understand how detrimental this conduct can be and have made a conscious effort to bring these numbers down.” A 1995 study published in Education Canada found that schools where administrators were committed to addressing the problem cut bullying in half.

However, there are instances when holding schools culpable does not go far enough. When truly severe bullying has occurred, punishment must include the bullies themselves, even if they are “children.”

There is a tendency to view bullying as normal, youthful high jinks – with responsibility for preventing such behaviors from getting out of hand resting entirely with supervising adults. This is due to several common misconceptions about bullying and bullies.

First, there is the myth that bullies attempt to dominate others because they secretly feel ashamed, inadequate, and/or insecure. Extensive studies published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence and School Psychology Review failed to identify a characteristic profile for bullies. While some do suffer from low self-esteem, others are genuinely arrogant and narcissistic, with prejudicial views of their victims, and still others bully out of envy and resentment toward victims.

Whatever their motivation, bullies consistently feel little empathy for their victims and show little remorse about bullying.

The second myth is the bully as a person who favors brute force to solve problems or get their way because they possess limited intelligence. RenĂ© Veenstra, a Sociology Professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, just completed an extensive study, published in the journal Child Development, that found bullies shrewdly target socially awkward victims who are unpopular in the bully’s own peer group. This not only helps ensure the bully remains in the group’s favor but also decreases the likelihood bystanders defend victims or report the bullying.

In short, bullies are smart enough to avoid detection by turning peers into enablers without them realizing it.

A third myth portrays the bully as a larger, older child who physically pounds on their younger, smaller victims – detectable/observable with relative ease by adults. In fact, bullying is essentially a secret crime. One study found teachers detected and intervened in only four percent of the bullying incidents observed by researchers. Bystanders and the victims themselves usually keep quiet, either out of fear of revenge by the bully, fear of peer disapproval, or the belief that adults cannot help them.

Moreover, physical bullying becomes less common the older children become. Among teens, bullying more often takes the form of verbal and emotional abuse, including passive but devastating acts of exclusion, such as shunning.

All of these myths factored into the case of Phoebe Prince. She was a new student at South Hadley, not to mention a recent immigrant from Ireland, but her problems really only began when she had brief sexual encounters with two popular senior boys, one of whom was a star on the school football team.

Whether she broke up with them or they with her is inconsequential to what resulted. However, it is unsurprising the ringleaders of the group that tormented her to suicide consisted of these two boys and their girlfriends. Prince lost her life because she ran afoul of the wrong clique.

The abuse she suffered in response from them was systematic and prolonged. It was beyond teasing and insults, beyond “normal girl drama,” beyond even cruelty. Prince regularly suffered threats and acts of violence against her. It was the work of thugs.

Elizabeth Scheibel, the local District Attorney, came to the same conclusion. Rather than focus on school authorities, whose inaction she deemed “troublesome but not criminal,” Scheibel went after the bullies themselves. She has charged the teens involved with felonies carrying stiff penalties.

The two boys face statutory rape charges. Although authorities presume the sex between them and Prince was consensual, they were both over sixteen while she was under sixteen and this is all that is required under Massachusetts law. They, their girlfriends, and two other girls also face charges of “violation of civil rights, with bodily injury resulting.” Three other, younger girls face lesser delinquency charges.

Some in South Hadley applaud these moves but many others are vociferous in their dissent. While they support efforts to prevent further bullying, they do not wish to see blame assigned for Prince’s death.

It is only natural that parents would wish to protect their children from prosecution as well as family and friends supporting them in that effort. Other parents may join them because they fear the same thing happening only too easily to their own children. Other citizens of South Hadley may enter in simply out of civic pride, hating to see their town and schools demonized.

It is natural but unacceptable. Middle class, heartland America must own up to the ugliness that lies within all of us, even our children. Nobody wants to see a young person’s future ruined but the teens that drove Prince to her death were already living ruined lives – punishment and other interventions by society are their only hope of getting their lives back. The life of their victim is beyond recall.

As a parent, I have told my own children not to let bullies draw them into their pointless cycles of violence. I urge them instead to tell me or their teachers or some other adult about what is happening. The trust this requires on their part commands that we take some actions beyond apologizing away anti-social behavior and those who commit it. Just because we should not raise our fists in retribution as individuals does not mean we cannot punish when acting as a group.

District Attorney Scheibel is herself a product of South Hadley. A longtime friend remembered to Emily Bazelon of Slate magazine how, as a child, Scheibel once beat up a bully who was picking on her younger brother. Sadly, sometimes the only way to deal with aggression is to shove back. The trick is to make sure the right individuals are doing the shoving. We need more laws like Massachusetts’s anti-bullying laws and more prosecutors like Scheibel who are unafraid to use them.

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