Phoebe Prince and the bullying phenomenon
Nine teenagers are being charged with bullying a 15-year-old Massachusetts girl to death. Is "bullycide" becoming a big problem?
Phoebe Prince, 15, hanged herself a few months after her family moved to South Hadley, Mass., from a small town in Ireland. Now state prosecutors are charging nine schoolmates with various felony charges for essentially bullying Prince to death. Here, a look at what happened in South Hadley, and how much of a problem "bullycide" is in America's schools:
What happened, briefly? Prince hanged herself in a stairwell at home Jan. 14. District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel says that on Prince's "torturous" last day she was harassed in the school hallway, lunch room, and library, and had a soda can thrown at her head on her walk home. This was the culmination of a "nearly-three month campaign," she charges, in which a "relentless" group of students conspired to humiliate and intimidate Prince with taunts of "Irish slut" and "Irish whore" and physical abuse.
What's the relationship between Prince and her alleged tormentors? Prince apparently "briefly dated" the two males indicted: local football star Sean Mulveyhill, 17, and Austin Renaud, 18. Mulveyhill's girlfriend, Ashley Longe, 16, and Renaud's, Flannery Mullins, also 16, were charged, too.
Did "cyber-bullying" play a role? The accused teens did engage in cyber-taunting, through cruel text messages and on Facebook — even after Prince's death — but unlike other recent high-profile bullying suicide cases, Prince was mostly harassed in school, according to the indictment.
What exactly are the teens charged with? Mulvehill and Renaud are charged with statutory rape — in Massachusetts, 16 is the age of consent for having sex. Mulveyhill and the seven so-called "mean girls" are collectively accused of stalking Prince, criminally harassing her, and violating her civil rights by, among other things, assaulting her with the soda can.
Is charging teenage bullies with felonies common? No. The New York Times calls this "an unusually sharp legal response to the problem of adolescent bullying," adding that its polling of legal experts found no other cases where "students faced serious criminal charges for harassing a fellow student." Americans are starting to take bullying more seriously, though — 41 states now have anti-bullying laws, and Massachusetts is close to passing its own version.
Will any South Hadley adults be punished? Probably not. Scheibel says that, contrary to the claims of school administrators, Prince's harassment was "common knowledge" among South Hadley High adults, whose "actions or inactions" are "troublesome." But she says they didn't violate any law. Several commentators and some South Hadley parents say school officials are getting off easy, while others argue that parents should do more.
What's South Hadley doing about bullying? High school administrators say they're taking student-to-student harassment more seriously now, and on Tuesday they suspended at least two indicted students who were still attending the school. They've also set up a volunteer-run anti-bullying task force.
Just how big a problems is "bullycide"? Bigger than most people think, says Lucinda Franks at The Daily Beast. She cites the following statistics: about 50,000 teenagers attempt suicide each year, and 5,000 succeed; about 250,000 teens a month say they've been physically attacked, and 30-60 percent say they've been attacked online. A new study by the Cyberbullying Research Center found that about 20 percent of middle-schoolers said they'd seriously considered suicide, and that people who were bullied at school or online were almost twice as likely to attempt suicide.
What's the best way to stop school bullying? That's a matter of much debate. There's widespread agreement that teachers and school officials should be more active. But where some argue for zero-tolerance rules — Fox News contributor Dr. Keith Ablow prescribes that bullies be automatically "removed from school" for a period — others say school-wide anti-bullying educational programs and workshops are more effective. The more schools that adopt such programs, says Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon, "the better for education, the better for everyone. Because all the math and English in the world won't do a lot of good for your students if they're going to wind up facing criminal charges. Or hanging from a stairwell."