‘Bullying bill’ foolhardy attempt to stop student battles
Up until Jan. 14, Phoebe was a sweet, pretty freshman at South Hadley High School. That was the day she hung herself in her closet after being relentlessly bullied by her fellow students.
Tragically, hers isn’t the only recent suicide-by-bully case in Massachusetts. Carl Walker – Hoover of Springfield killed himself last spring after months of anti-gay taunting at his school – at the age of only 11.
These incidents have resulted in an outpouring of anger and frustration from the community. Local parents have demanded accountability as school systems have done everything in their power to duck it. Meanwhile, Massachusetts lawmakers have dealt with the problem in the only way they know how – by attempting to make new laws.
Except none of these things – especially not the anti-bullying legislation proposed before the Joint Committee on Education – are helping the matter. Mainly because laws against bullying are, and always will be, doomed to fail. “Forty-four states expressly ban bullying…yet few if any of those measures have identified children who excessively pick on their peers,” reported the Associate Press on Sept. 14, 2009. Studies have not shown these laws to be an effective method of dealing with the problem.
When someone in our society has been wronged, it’s natural for us to look for someone to punish. “When South Hadley authorities find the girls who drove Phoebe Prince to take her own life, they should prosecute them. Stop pretending they’re just cruel and nasty girls being girls. They’re criminal torturers,” wrote Boston Herald columnist Margery Eagan on Jan. 26.
But Eagan’s wrong. The terms “criminal” and “torturer” have very specific definitions, while “bullying” is a subjective act that’s defined solely by how it makes an individual feel. After all, what exactly is bullying? Is it a shove on the playground? A snide laugh in the locker room? A nasty look in the hallway? Depending on who you ask, it could be none of these things – or all three.
The slipperiness of the definition makes anti-bullying laws difficult to legislate and even harder to enforce. Teasing, mocking and general meanness are all based on individual perception. Furthermore, criminalizing these actions could have a significant chilling effect on free speech in school.
The way to help students like Phoebe is not to criminally prosecute bullies, but instead to reach out to those who are being bullied. It isn’t the cruel words that drive these young people to suicide – it’s how they emotionally interpret these words.
We already have the infrastructure to prevent these teen suicides, but it’s clearly not being implemented correctly.
The first thing that failed Phoebe was the legal system. Some reports have claimed that the actions against her went further than mere bullying and delved into the realm of harassment and physical assault. If this is true, then she should have been protected under our existing laws. This doesn’t mean that we need additional legislation. We need better enforcement of the old ones.
The second failure was the apparent lack of people in the school district who were there for Phoebe. A lot of the bullying allegedly took place at the high school – but where were the guidance counselors and school psychologists in this situation? Don’t the taxpayers hire these people in order to prevent tragedies like this one? Instead of lobbying for new laws, community members should be demanding that these school employees fulfill the responsibilities that they are already tasked with. Not only should they have intervened to help Phoebe, they should have also stepped forward to help the clearly troubled teens who were bullying her.
Perhaps the most important step in eliminating these incidents falls onto the shoulders of the parents. It’s not only the parents of bullied students who should take a more active role in their childrens’ lives – the parents of the bullies have a responsibility to their kids as well. Traits that are crucial for well-adjusted teens – such as kindness, empathy and self-confidence – are all taught and nurtured at home.
Unless we solve the problems in our current system, there’s no point in creating new laws that will likely run into the same roadblocks. Legislation can’t make us better people. It can’t stop us from being mean, getting offended or feeling insecure. That ability lies in us, and to a lesser extent in our teachers, in our parents and in our friends.
The truth is, the entire community bears a portion of the responsibility for the death of Phoebe Price and other teens like her. If the suffering of these students went unspotted in the classroom and at the dinner table, what makes us believe it would get noticed all the way from Beacon Hill?
Alana Goodman is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.