Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bullying and Suicide

Nine Teenagers Charged After Classmate's Suicide:

Prosecutor[s] brought charges Monday against nine teenagers, saying their taunting and physical threats were beyond the pale and led the freshman, Phoebe Prince, to hang herself from a stairwell in January.

The charges were an unusually sharp legal response to the problem of adolescent bullying, which is increasingly conducted in cyberspace as well as in the schoolyard and has drawn growing concern from parents, educators and lawmakers.

Two boys and four girls, ages 16 to 18, face a different mix of felony charges that include statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly. Three younger girls have been charged in juvenile court, Elizabeth D. Scheibel, the Northwestern district attorney, said at a news conference in Northampton, Mass.

Appearing with state and local police officials on Monday, Ms. Scheibel said that Ms. Prince’s suicide came after nearly three months of severe taunting and physical threats by a cluster of fellow students.

It was particularly alarming, the district attorney said, that some teachers, administrators and other staff members at the school were aware of the harassment but did not stop it. “The actions or inactions of some adults at the school were troublesome,” Ms. Scheibel said, but did not violate any laws.
Not just the adults at school, but the parents of the nine arrested. Where were they?

The retributive side of me would argue the parents of the bullies should be hauled into court and charged as well. It would be difficult to prosecute them, but in cases of bullying, the research has shown for years that the nut doesn't fall far from the tree. Households where you find extreme authoritarianism, prejudice, scapegoating and violence are likely to produce bullies. To put it another way, you would probably find bullies in either their fathers, their mothers, or both.

Nevertheless, it does seem to be a groundbreaking case in the use of charges to respond to bullying and suicide. And I don't see this on the same continuum of criminalizing childhood, which we've talked about before. Fighting at school or skipping school should not lead to an arrest and conviction.

But tormenting someone to the point where you drive the person to kill themselves? A criminal prosecution of these adolescents (and their parents) seems perfectly warranted to me.

UPDATE: Apparently, the school officials knew way more about the torment this girl was going through than they first admitted. Could their own inaction be subject to criminal or civil liability?

Darby O’Brien, a friend of the Prince family, said Thursday that Ms. Prince’s parents had told him that they had twice tried to alert the school and protect their daughter. Anne Prince, the mother, told him that in one case she had contacted a school official in November asking “whether this gang of girls was a threat to her daughter,” and was told not to worry. The mother said she had contacted the school again in the first week of January as the taunting continued, Mr. O’Brien said.

The parents, who are discussing a possible civil suit, have refused to speak to reporters. Mr. O’Brien, a parent and head of an advertising agency here, called for the superintendent, board chairman and principal to resign. “I can’t buy the story that they were unaware,” he said. “They are running for cover.”

Interesting. It's easy to point the finger at the school and their bungling of the incidents leading up to the suicide, but I would again ask: where are the parents of the bullies in this? And why haven't they been frog-marched before the cameras?

UPDATE II: Mike Males and Meda-Chesney Lind (two sociologists I cite frequently in class) have a great op-ed in today's NYT on the "myth of mean girls" and why we shouldn't misinterpret this episode of bullying in terms of gender.

Tip of the propeller beanie to Jay at Montclair, who also has a good post on this.

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