Following the recent suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Massachusetts, stories about bullying and bullycide pervade the media. Phoebe’s bullies have been charged with multiple crimes including stalking, criminal harassment, civil rights violations, assault with a dangerous weapon, and statutory rape. The public has mostly responded to the crimes with outrage, although some columnists have highlighted our society’s implicit tolerance of bullying by exploring the question: Where do we draw the line between bullying behavior and criminal behavior?
In an article published in the April 19th issue of Time Magazine, Nancy Gibbs reports feeling “uneasy” about the criminal charges being brought against the bullies in the case of Phoebe Prince. Ms. Gibbs states that the district attorney who brought the charges “had to be creative to find charges that fit.” After reading a description of the bullying which Phoebe endured, however, one can only ask in what sense are these charges “creative?” By all accounts the perpetrators stalked, harassed, threatened, and verbally abused Phoebe for months.
If these same behaviors were directed at an adult in the workplace, it is unlikely that anybody would be asking questions about the “slippery” slope between “cruel and criminal.” Most employers educate new employees about harassment in the work place and enforce a zero tolerance policy. Conversely, there seems to be a 100% tolerance policy regarding these same behaviors in schools. Why do we not consider such behavior to be criminal simply because the perpetrators and the victims are children in school? If these same behaviors were directed at an adult Phoebe in the workplace, Ms. Gibbs would most certainly not feel “uneasy” about charging the perpetrators.
Mary Winter published a similar piece on www.politicsdaily.com, stating: “Being called ‘Irish slut’ and ‘Irish whore’ is no picnic, but in this age of casual slurs, 24/7 Internet bile and ubiquitous F-bombs, it’s hard to understand how those terms could have pushed Prince over the brink.” Really? Psychologists have long known how devastating sustained emotional and verbal abuse can be. The effects of such abuse can include destructive behavior, withdrawal, poor development of basic skills, alcohol and drug abuse, difficulty forming relationships, and suicide. Sticks and stones may break bones but words can utterly destroy a person, regardless of what the schoolyard ditty claims. For children, this is doubly true, as they are more vulnerable than adults and yet, as a society we are indifferent.
Ms. Winter goes on to wonder “will prosecuting bullying, as Massachusetts is doing, help reduce the number of bullycides?” It seems Ms. Winter is only concerned about bullying when it results in death. The question of whether prosecuting harassment, verbal abuse, and assault will prevent further incidents of harassment, abuse, and assault is apparently irrelevant (but it seems safe to say that it would). As we currently operate, victims of this sort of abuse are allowed no voice, no relief, and no sympathy, as in Phoebe’s case in which nobody seemed to care enough to take action until after her death. Now, finally, she is being heard via journals and writings from the days leading up to her death, and authorities are listening. But Ms. Winter disapproves of charging children with these crimes, suggesting that we “resist the urge to find scapegoats.” No matter that the “scapegoats” acted intentionally, maliciously, and with the sole purpose of causing as much emotional pain as possible to another human being.
The questions that Ms. Gibbs and Ms. Winter raise are indicative of an underlying societal tolerance of violence and abuse between children. The vast majority of cases do not end in suicide and so, we continue to ignore them. But let us adults at least acknowledge it and call it for what it is: criminal behavior. So to answer Ms. Winter’s question, no, Phoebe was not the victim of bullycide. Phoebe took her own life. She was, however, the victim of stalking, criminal harassment, assault, and statutory rape. It is just too bad that she had to take her own life for these crimes to be taken seriously.