My column for the AJC education page this week was about the Phoebe Prince bullying case. (I did not post it here as we had discussed the issues already.) But among my statements in the column:
As sympathetic as I am to Phoebe’s family in their quest for justice, it’s hard to know what was really happening in the young girl’s life. It’s often difficult to assess what family dynamics and personal issues play a role in a suicide.
Was Phoebe’s depression due solely to her cruel treatment at school or were other issues involved, such as the family’s recent move to the United States from Ireland? Was Phoebe homesick for Ireland and her friends?
None of these conditions would excuse the bullying, but they would help us understand what also might have been going on in Phoebe’s life.
I debated this issue with several readers last week, almost all of whom disagree with me. Among them is John E. Morris, a social sciences doctoral student.
“A student who is abused by his fellow students is not likely to confirm the abuse to adults, because of an underlying desire to be accepted by the very students abusing him or her,” Morris says. “It’s the behavior that occurs out of the sight of adults. It’s what kids do to other kids where teachers, parents and administrators can’t see.’’
In Phoebe’s case, the school staff appears to have tolerated the bullying or at least failed to clamp down on it. While Phoebe and her mother did report the repeated hazing to the school, it’s unclear whether anyone took it seriously.
Did the administration call in the nine students and their parents — middle-class families with college aspirations for their offspring — and advise them that one more incident would result in expulsion and an end to their college dreams?
If the school failed in its caretaking role, the parents can seek satisfaction through civil action, but adolescent behavior — even as brutal as this appears to have been — does not necessarily a felony make.
A danger with focusing on what these nine immature and nasty teenagers did is that we will not spend enough time looking at what the adults in the school didn’t do.
I have heard from many readers who disagree, and this is one of them. With her permission, I am running her very strong note:
Usually, as I read your columns, I am grateful that the AJC has a local columnist who expresses opinions I respect and can identify with. Which is why I was aghast at your piece “Was she bullied to death?” where you bend over backwards trying to excuse the nine people charged with hounding a 15-year old girl to death.
The physical and verbal attacks Phoebe Prince endured would have been punishable crimes had they been committed in the adult
workplace. But because they were committed in a school you believe special, gentler rules should be administered to these perpetrators you call “immature and nasty teenagers.”
You may have missed the story last week about the death of James Aubrey, who portrayed the hero in the movie version of William Golding’s classic tale of bullying, “Lord of the Flies.” The book, and the film, explains brilliantly the mechanism of bullying. I highly recommend your reading the book or seeing the film. I have no doubt that if those boys on that island had been equipped with cellphones, they too would have texted each other “mission accomplished,” which the accused girls in South Hadley did when they learned of Phoebe’s death.
There is nothing immature about those girls. Their behavior was cold, calculating and detached. If you can’t see that, may I recommend some additional reading… like, anything by Hannah Arendt, but mostly “On Violence” and “The Banality of Evil.” I would also recommend a viewing of the German “The White Ribbon.”
Phoebe Prince was not killed by unknown thugs from a deprived, racially diverse neighborhood; her death was brought about by thugs she knew, thugs who lived in comfortable homes in an affluent white community. But she’s just as dead. And thugs are thugs. Do you honestly believe that Phoebe’s tormentors would have realized the errors of their ways if, like you suggest, “they had been advised that one more incident would result in expulsion and an end to their to college dreams”? In all likelihood, they’d be laughing, texting and tweeting about their “success” as they left the principal’s office.
Your attempts to blame the victim reminds me of the time rape victims were scared of bringing charges because they knew that in court they would be portrayed as loose women “asking for it.” Do you honestly think a girl goes and hangs herself because she hasn’t seen her friends in a couple of months? (”Was Phoebe homesick for Ireland and her friends?”)
I don’t know where you live, but it must be a lovely, sheltered world!
About the only thing I agree with in your article is the very last line. The adults in this case, the school officials AND the parents of these teenage terrorists, share blame in Phoebe Prince’s death.