Content Note: This post contains discussions of abuse, bullying, rape, rape culture, suicide, and slut shaming.
I was horrified this morning when I cracked open my RSS feed to read a story from the New York Times about charges being brought in Massachusetts against nine students who harried a young woman to death. ‘9 Teenagers Accused of Bullying That Led to Suicide‘ is a headline that I just do not want to see ever and unfortunately I have seen a number of iterations of this over the past few months. I am reminded of the case Cara wrote about only a few months ago; Hope Witsell, 13, committed suicide after her classmates circulated nude photographs of her.
Phoebe Prince was 15. Her family had recently relocated from Ireland, and like many students in a new school, she undoubtedly struggled to find her ground but appeared to settle in reasonably quickly, making a number of friends and posting pictures of herself and her new friends having fun together on social networking sites. She ended up in a relationship with a senior, which attracted negative attention from her classmates, who started harassing her. On 14 January, she was abused in multiple locations around the school, according to reports, before a drink was thrown at her on her way home. She then hung herself in a stairwell, where her sister found her.
The bullying which Phoebe endured was, by all accounts, awful. It also took place primarily on school grounds. For three months, students stalked her in the halls. They called her an ‘Irish slut,’ a slur which I would have thought went out style 100 years ago, but evidently not. Students harassed her with text messages and evidently used social networking sites to takes their bullying beyond school grounds.
There’s a lot of discussion about what to do about abuse and bullying. In this case, it is clear that Phoebe’s school failed her. It’s one thing for administrators to fail to pick up on bullying which takes place outside school grounds. When abuse of this magnitude takes place at school and educators know about it and fail to act, that is nothing short of reprehensible.
District Attorney Elizabeth D. Scheibel said in a statement today:
Contrary to previously published reports, Phoebe’s harassment was common knowledge to most of the South Hadley High School student body. The investigation has revealed that certain faculty, staff and administrators of the high school also were alerted to the harassment of Phoebe Prince before her death. Prior to Phoebe’s death, her mother spoke with at least two school staff members about the harassment Phoebe had reported to her.
She went on to note that several bystanders, including faculty, attempted to intervene, clearly illustrating that people were aware of the bullying and that some people were perturbed by it. Shockingly:
In reviewing this investigation, we’ve considered whether or not the actions or omissions to act by faculty, staff and administrators of the South Hadley public schools individually, or collectively, amounted to criminal behavior. In our opinion, it did not.
How is ignoring bullying which escalates to the point that a young woman commits suicide not ‘criminal behaviour’? Educators have a clear responsibility to their students. Going to school is not just about learning, but also about socialisation. Abuse and bullying are directly harmful. They prevent students from learning, they disrupt the school environment, they cause trauma which former victims may struggle with for the rest of their lives. Students are repeatedly told that they can report abuse to adults and that something will be done; what kind of precedent does it set when students do just that and nothing happens?
Inaction on the part of administrators was also a betrayal of trust. Phoebe’s trust, when she assumed that she could attend high school without being tormented. The trust of her parents, who believed that they were sending their child into the care of responsible adults who would look out for her welfare. The trust of all the people who reported the bullying in the belief that they were doing something to stop it.
Sometimes, bullying leads to death. Bullying is not ‘just kids being kids,’ it is not a ‘normal’ part of attending school, it is purely and simply abuse.
Phoebe Price was an artist. A writer. By all accounts she was an accomplished and talented young woman who will never have an opportunity to realise that talent.
Her friends have come forward now to talk about how lovely she was, and I cannot help but wonder where they were when Phoebe was being relentlessly bullied and abused. Were they among the bystanders who tried to help her? Among the people who reported the bullying? Did they follow protocol and report the situation to adults in the belief that administrators and faculty would take action to help Phoebe?
‘Her adjustment problem was she got popular quick and she ran right up against the beautiful kids,’ said South Hadley parent Lucas Gelinas. He said his son was an acquaintance of Prince’s in class. ‘She started taking some of that magnetism away from them.’
Yes. Let’s blame the victim, shall we. How dare Phoebe move to the United States from Ireland and threaten to unseat the popular kids with her vibrant personality. More so, how dare she poach on the sacred territory of the popular girls by dating a popular senior boy. Clearly, she got what she deserved, right? Everyone knows that ‘sluts’ deserve to be bullied and shamed for their actions, right?
This is what rape culture looks like. This is what abusive cultures look like. When parents of Phoebe’s classmates assure reporters that she was ‘attention grabbing,’ it suggests that if she had just been quieter, less obtrusive, less herself, perhaps her classmates wouldn’t have felt so threatened by her that they felt the need to torment her for months. To be so abusive to her with the apparently open permission of faculty members that she committed suicide to escape. What happened to Phoebe was Phoebe’s fault, is what these people are saying. To say otherwise would be to admit complicity.
Reporters are already complaining that the nine students charged in the case are ‘being depicted as monsters.’ Well, bullying is a monstrous act. It also tends to have a snowball effect and I suspect that some of these students are lesser monsters than others; all it takes is one dominant student to draw other students into a cycle of bullying behaviour. When you are in a situation like that, it can be difficult to exercise choice and break free of the cycle, let alone to speak out against it, because then you become a target for bullying yourself. As long as you are one of the people throwing stones, you believe that the other people throwing stones cannot turn on you.
In my eye, it’s the administrators at Phoebe’s school who are the real monsters who should be called to account here. They had the knowledge of the bullying and the ability to take action and they did nothing, and that is something deeply shameful. And I’m sure that many of those administrators are feeling very bad right now, as well they should be, because they took no action while a young woman was bullied to death. They did not intervene to attempt to break the links in the bullying cycle. They did not attempt to help Phoebe escape. They evidently ignored reports from Phoebe’s own mother about the situation.
This was not the first time the school knew about bullying and took no action. Here’s another parent, quoted in the Times:
“My daughter was bullied for three years, and we continually went to the administration and we really got no satisfaction,” Mr. Brouillard said, adding, “I was offered an apology a few weeks ago that they should have handled it differently.”
There was a culture of tolerance for bullying at Phoebe’s school. Some of the same students charged in this case were reported earlier and administrators failed to act. Now, they say:
The school has convened an anti-bullying task force, which met Monday, to help determine how to deal with bullying. “That’s the really clear message we’re trying to send — if you see anything at all, online, through friends, you have to tell us,” said Bill Evans, an administrator leading a group subcommittee.
It strikes me as good that this is happening, but I have to ask: Why did it take a death for the school to decide to take action?