Deal justice to bullies

By Shane Cronin

Phoebe Prince, the fifteen-year-old South Hadley, Mass. high school student who was the victim of intense bullying committed suicide in her home earlier this year. Bullying typically tapers off in high school. It is not, however, fully eradicated in those latter years before graduation. According to a 2007 study conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 14 percent of high school students polled admitted to initiating bullying in the previous twelve months, and 22 percent said they were the targets of bullying during the past twelve months. Phoebe Prince is a grave testament to this.

As of Wednesday, nine teenagers have been charged in varying capacities in connection with her untimely death and a small group of others having been expelled. Northwestern Mass. District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel has filed several different charges against Prince’s fellow students including statutory rape, criminal harassment and civil rights violations.

It is despicable that the South Hadley High School faculty knew of the dangerous situation in which Prince, a native of Ireland, was engulfed in, and still did nothing. Students alerted administrators of the hostile situation. Prince’s parents also spoke directly with school administrators. So why didn’t the school take action against her verbal attackers? South Hadley High officials initially reported they knew little of the three months long harassment period that traumatized Prince. District Attorney Scheibel has found this allegation to be completely untrue.

On at least one occasion a teacher witnessed Prince being hounded by students while studying in the library. The teacher neither intervened nor reported the incident until after the victim hanged herself. Aside from that, it was apparently common knowledge that Prince was the subject of severe victimization. The D.A. found that Phoebe Prince was subject to, “relentless activities… designed to humiliate her, and to make it impossible for her to stay at school…the bullying, for her, was intolerable.”

The Massachusetts House of Representatives has approved an anti-bullying bill. On Tuesday the Senate rejected the House’s version, and the legislation must now be sent to a conference committee to ameliorate the two. The anti-bullying legislation was proposed last year in response to the suicide of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a Springfield charter school student who was also the target of peer harassment. The eleven-year-old hanged himself with an electrical cord last April as a result.

More than 40 states have laws that address school bullying. Massachusetts and the remaining states need to get on board. Bullying is a reality for many students, unfortunately, and these laws will not provide a panacea for that. They will, however, help enforce accountability. Most Bay State schools have bullying policies in place currently, but there are great variances that exist among them.

Cyberbullying further complicates matters. The tentative legislation incorporates protocol for handling this as well. In the case of Prince, Facebook and text messaging were factors despite most of the tormenting occurring in person, despite the superintendent’s original assertion to the contrary.

Scheibel does not likely have grounds to prosecute South Hadley High School for the negligent and irresponsible manner in which they disregarded Prince’s welfare. That does not mean the school can not be held accountable. Once the D.A.’s investigation is complete, action should be taken against the administration. The principle of South Hadley High School should be fired. All other faculty aware of the bullying at the school that did nothing should be fired. Furthermore, the superintendent of South Hadley Public Schools should be removed from his position. He initially denied that Prince’s mother sought help from at least two staff members at the school, but the D.A. found she, indeed, had.

The community is calling for these officials to resign, but they should not be afforded that opportunity. They are liars. How can parents be expected to trust these apathetic administrators and teachers with their children’s safety? Christine Sweklo, assistant superintendent, said a review of school bullying policy is underway and that future threats will be entered into a database. In other words, all that’s happening is the usual spewing of bureaucratic leaders’ bile rather than conceding they didn’t do their jobs properly.

As for the accused students, who will be arraigned in the coming weeks, the charges of civil rights violations alone, brought forth by the D.A., carry sentences of up to ten years in prison. Because there is no legal statute concerning bullying, Schiebel has resorted to filing serious criminal charges. With roughly a dozen or so students implicated for bullying Prince, it is clear that a culture of violence was permitted at the school. Therefore, felony charges are warranted. If it is proven that these students acted in perpetuity and malice against Prince, they should receive jail sentences.

Not all of the aggressors are being tried as adults. Their punishments should reflect that. The minors, however, should not be let off the hook with slaps on the wrists. When severe school-aged bullying is the cause of a teenager’s suicide, all parties involved are damaged. The futures of the accused are uncertain. Clearly those most affected by this travesty are the Prince family.

This is not about making an example of anyone because of the national attention this case has attracted. A girl is dead. The people that should have been helping her ignored her, and the pleas of witnesses who spoke up on her behalf were ignored as well. There were numerous instances over the three month span that preceded Prince’s suicide where her tormentors could have been abated. The school should have expelled the bullies long before Prince felt her only means of escape was taking her own life. That is why it is necessary these charges be filed.

Shane Cronin is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].