Bullied to Death? Part Two: A Measure of Posthumous Justice for Phoebe Prince

Every article I have read about the Phoebe Prince case condemned the brutal bullying campaign carried out by these students, and its horrifying consequences, but there were many different perspectives as to what to do next.

Since I first wrote for FedSmith.com about 15-year-old Irish immigrant Phoebe Prince’s “suicide by bullying,” the tragic story has garnered a great deal of national, and even international, attention, as evidenced by a feature article, with Phoebe’s photo on the cover, in the April 26 edition of People Magazine. The last time I looked, there were 100 comments posted on the FedSmith.com website about my first article; Phoebe’s story obviously touched the hearts of many readers, and there were lots of astute observations about the situation.

The most significant development in the aftermath of Phoebe’s death has been the enactment, on May 3, of a Massachusetts law cracking down on school bullies and requiring teachers to report bullying to principals. As reported in USA Today, the bill, which prohibits bullying on school property and outlaws cyberbullying, was passed unanimously after the suicides of Phoebe Prince and Carl Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old boy who hanged himself at home after he had been tormented by classmates.

Every article I have read about the Phoebe Prince case condemned the brutal bullying campaign carried out by these students, and its horrifying consequences, but there were many different perspectives as to what to do next. For example, Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post Writers Group questioned “the wisdom of the criminal charges…filed against nine of Phoebe’s former classmates. Bullying should be taken seriously – by teachers, administrators, parents and, yes, fellow students. I’m doubtful, though, that criminal prosecution is the best way to punish or prevent it.” She went on to observe that “the specific counts underscore how clumsy a tool the criminal law is to deal with such behavior. Charging nine students is casting an awfully wide net.”

Ms. Marcus quoted District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, who had, in announcing the criminal charges, described “a nearly three-month campaign of verbally abusive, assaultive behavior and threats of physical harm…relentless activity designed to humiliate her and to make it impossible for her to remain at school.” Ms. Scheibel had further noted that the bullying “far exceeded the limits of normal teenage relationship-related quarrels.” Ms. Marcus wondered how Ms. Scheibel could know this information, and whether we wanted prosecutors to routinely make these calls.

I think I understand Ms. Marcus’ concerns, but I disagree with her take on criminal prosecutions in this case. I consider District Attorney Scheibel to be a heroine and see her prosecution of at least six, at last count, of Phoebe’s tormentors to have been a warning shot across the bow of bullies – one that was heard ‘round the country, and quite possibly the world.

The People Magazine article quoted bullying expert Robin D’Antona as saying that the decision to prosecute “means people are taking this seriously and there will be consequences.” One of those people is Austin Renaud, who was charged with one count of statutory rape in the Phoebe Prince matter. His attorney says that Reynaud has been “vilified” and that “He’s scared.” I tried to work up some sympathy for Mr. Reynaud’s situation, but came up empty.

While I don’t expect prosecution to become the norm in bullying cases, the fact is that these two kids, Phoebe and Carl, are both just as dead as they would have been had their persecutors murdered them outright. So, I have no problem with Ms. Scheibel’s decision to prosecute the students who drove Phoebe to suicide. Ms. Marcus wrote about how “how clumsy a tool the criminal tool is to deal with such behavior.” Perhaps so, but sometimes a clumsy tool is better than none at all.

But criminal prosecution and anti-bullying laws such as the one just enacted in Massachusetts are by no means the whole answer to the problem. I am no expert on this subject, but I do have a few ideas as to some of the principal components of both the problem and its potential resolution.

Students: Those most directly responsible for the “suicide by bullying” death of Phoebe Prince were obviously the students who bullied her. In this case, I think, there was a volatile mixture of elements, including the fact that Phoebe was new, a foreigner, non-confrontational, and had briefly dated two of the boys in the group, apparently without knowing that they had girlfriends. And People Magazine quoted an unidentified sophomore girl as saying “She was beautiful. She was bullied out of pure jealousy.” I think another contributing factor was the “mob mentality” that sometimes causes people to act differently as part of a group than they would as individuals.

The scope of the problem: According to clinical psychologist Rhonda Hackett, writing in the Denver Post, “As many as 20 percent of high school students say they are bullied at school. Experts believe just as many others experience bullying but don’t report it for fear of being retaliated against. Incredibly, 160,000 teenage victims of bullying skip school every day in this country out of fear.”

Various articles observed that there were at least four students who attempted to intervene on Phoebe’s behalf. They deserve great credit, particularly since they risked, at a minimum, being ostracized for “ratting out” the bullies.

Parents: According to blogger Ben Leichtling, Bill Cosby said on a special anti-bullying segment of Larry King Live on CNN that “Of course I start with the bullies themselves and their parents, who turned a blind eye and will now protect their little darlings.  They’ll blame Phoebe Prince for being a weakling.  As if they think that what the teenagers did was okay and Phoebe should have taken it like a good victim because it was her fault.”

I don’t know the family circumstances involved, such as how many may be single parents, but I wonder if they all could have been completely ignorant of what their kids were doing, or, even worse, knew but didn’t stop it. I suspect that the knowledge and actions, or lack thereof, of parents is a key piece of this puzzle not just in this case but in the whole arena of school bullying.

Ms. Hackett put it this way: “As parents, we should actively demand that schools provide us with an unwavering commitment to present a learning environment free of torment…As a society, we need to insist that all schools formally address bullying.”

Educators: District Attorney Scheibel found that “…certain faculty, staff and administrators of the high school…were alerted to the harassment of Phoebe Prince before her death.” While she ultimately dismissed the possibility of filing charges against members of the school staff, she declared the “actions – or inactions” of those staff members who were aware of the bullying to be “troublesome.” Ms. Marcus wrote that “to its credit, (Hadley High School) had brought in an expert on bullying even before Phoebe’s problems came to light. Still, the consultant told USA Today that when she returned to the school after Phoebe’s death, ‘I was told there was no visible sign these kids had faced consequences for what they’d done.'”

Bill Cosby’s take on the Hadley High School educators:

“I…agree with parent Luke Gelinas, who says superintendent Gus A. Sayer, principal Daniel Smith and school committee chairman Edward J. Boisselle should go.”

“Of course, many failing principals, teachers and administrators hide behind the phrase, ‘We didn’t know.’  That shows why the most important thing you can do as a parent is often to document your contact with those supposedly responsible adults who actually won’t help you or your child…”

Mr. Cosby went on to criticize “the supposedly responsible adults at school who failed in their primary responsibility; creating a safe environment in which character and values are modeled by adults and in which academic learning can be maximized. I think the lazy, uncaring cowards that are now finding justifications and asking us to excuse their behavior deserve the strongest consequences.”

Ms. Hackett wrote that when their 14-year-old son reluctantly admitted to being bullied at his Catholic high school in Denver, she and her husband went immediately to the dean of students; “The reaction was disbelief.” She went on to observe that “Despite our multiple meetings and conferences with school officials, our son’s bullies were left in the school, ultimately beating him up between classes and causing physical injury. For months, we had begged the school to implement an anti-bullying program, a common offering at many Colorado public schools following the Columbine tragedy, but were ignored. Schools with intervention programs report half as many bullying incidents as those schools without a formal program…” according to local anti-bullying expert Kathleen Keelan.”

Legislators & Other Elected Officials: Website “towleroad.com” opined that the widespread publicity garnered by the Phoebe Prince and Carl Walker-Hoover “suicides by bullying” essentially forced the Massachusetts legislature to enact stronger legislation than the watered-down bills that members were considering at the time.

Representative Martha Walz, House chairwoman of the Education Committee, said the bill was ‘very strong legislation that will make a meaningful difference in the lives of children in our state.’ ‘This is a day that we can be proud we have done something positive – to eradicate bullying and to demonstrate to this commonwealth and to the nation that bullying will no longer be tolerated,’ said Representative John Scibak, whose district includes South Hadley.

If elected officials, including school board members, city, county and state representatives, etc., won’t take action to protect children from bullying because it’s the right thing to do, they may well do so if they become convinced that not doing so could impede their chances of being re-elected.

Social websites: On the day Phoebe Prince took her life, one of the bullies wrote the word “accomplished” on Phoebe’s Facebook page. She had previously been cyberbullied on that site and on Twitter, Craigslist and Formspring.

Cyberbullying, described as intentional harm inflicted through electronic media, is a growing problem that affects almost half of all U.S. teens, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “An increasing number of youth are misusing online technology — e-mailing, text messaging, chatting and blogging — to bully, harass and even incite violence against others.  Targets of cyberbullying may be subject to additional distress due to the pervasive and invasive nature of modern communication technology.”

“Cyberbullying messages can be circulated far and wide in an instant and are usually irrevocable; cyberbullying is ubiquitous—there is no refuge and victimization can be relentless; and cyberbullying is often anonymous and can rapidly swell as countless and unknown others join in on ‘the fun.'” The ADL went on to say that “Particularly with the rise in cyberbullying, schools are seeking ways to create a safe environment, and communities and legislatures are creating guidelines on the issue.”

The Bottom Line: Preventing School Bullying

Quoting comedian and educator Dr. Bill Cosby again: “We do know what to do to easily stop 75-90 percent of school bullying.  Are you holding your school administrators and legislators accountable for doing their share? If you’re a parent of a teenager, do you know what to do to teach your child to be as bully-proof as possible and to hold your principal and staff accountable?”

Existing Programs and Options

As noted above, Denver anti-bullying expert Kathleen Keelan has found that schools with intervention programs report half as many bullying incidents as those schools without a formal program.

I referenced in an earlier FedSmith.com article one such intervention program, the “Rachel’s Challenge Foundation,” named for Rachel Scott, the first person killed in the Columbine High School shooting, and is based on her theory that “if one person can go out of their way to show compassion then it will start a chain reaction of the same.”

The Rachel’s Challenge training programs are designed for students, parents and community leaders. Since the program’s inception, anti-bullying programs have been put on in 3,300 high schools and middle schools in all 50 states and in six foreign countries. Program officials estimate that the message of Rachel’s Challenge has reached more than 11 million people. Their statistics include the documented prevention of seven school shootings or other forms of violence, and evidence that hundreds of suicides were averted.

There are many other bullying intervention programs, and experts on the prevention of bullying, so it should be possible to find a person or program that would be helpful in your particular situation or; if not, perhaps you can help create such a program. For example, Fox61 Connecticut reported that in that state a coalition has been formed to deal with bullying in the Hartford school system. An 11-year-old girl who is being bullied spoke out in a recent video produced by the television station.

And the website of the Federal Center for Mental Health Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has a number of suggestions for demonstrating assertive behavior; teaching social skills; identifying and correcting potential friendship problems; teaching common courtesy skills; identifying ways to respond to bullies; and demonstratingthe rewards of personal achievement.

The High Price of Inaction

As I was finalizing this article, I read about a Richmond, Virginia teenager who hanged himself during the first week of June after saying that he was being bullied by a classmate. The mother of Christian Taylor, 16, said the Grafton High School freshman had complained to school and law enforcement officials about being bullied, but nothing was done to stop her son’s tormentor.

Ruth Marcus wrote that “to be a teenager is to do stupid things. The teenage brain is a work in progress. The…part linked to impulse control, judgment and decision-making is still maturing. That is why all teenagers need adult supervision, from parents and teachers.” No argument there, but when the stupid behavior is cruel and dangerous, we as a society need to take action to protect the victims. .

Even those of us who no longer have children in school, or never did, can help by, for example, contacting the superintendents and/or principals of middle and high schools in our area and asking them about their anti-bullying policies and programs.

While the overwhelming majority of students who are bullied have not been and likely will not be driven to commit suicide, what a tragedy to lose any young person to bullying, and victims of bullying in school often write about psychological scars that last a lifetime.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.