Young Irish immigrant Phoebe Prince committed suicide last winter after being cruelly and persistently bullied by a pack of mean girls at her school. While it was her own hand that tied the noose, many in her community and the world blamed her death on the teenage bullies who harrassed her in school, on the streets of South Hadley, and over the Internet.
When six students from South Hadley were charged with criminal offenses for their participation in the bullying, it seemed like justice was being served. Clearly, the D.A. wanted to make an example of these youngsters. But their behavior was appalling by any measure, and Prince was only one of a string of teen suicides apparently provoked by cyber-bullying.
Courts, school leaders and parents all over the world are playing catch-up with a changing landscape of bullying, trying to find new ways to protect kids from the cruelty of their peers. A strong legal stance might be one piece of the solution to fatal bullying.
But were the South Hadley bullies really the monsters the media has portrayed them as?
Emily Bazelon has been covering this case for Slate since the beginning, with extensive in-depth reporting. Now she’s published a piece with new insights and new questions about what really happened to Phoebe, and how the situation was handled.
As Bazelon says:
The whole story is a lot more complicated than anyone has publicly allowed for. The events that led to Phoebe’s death show how hard it is for kids, parents, and schools to cope with bullying, especially when the victim is psychologically vulnerable. The charges against the students show how strong the impulse is to point fingers after a suicide, how hard it is to assess blame fairly, and how ill-suited police and prosecutors can be to punishing bullies.
Bazelon recounts in more detail than we’ve seen before the events that led to Phoebe’s death: the bullying on Facebook, at school and as she walked home from school. She reveals more about Phoebe’s troubled life than previous reporters have done. She’d attempted suicide before, for example, and was cutting herself. South Hadley wasn’t the first school where Phoebe had been targeted by popular bullies.
None of that changes the horrendous behavior of the students who taunted her. If anything, their actions are more upsetting placed in context. Phoebe was a freshman who dated two seniors during her short time at South Hadley high. These boys and their classmates, friends and girlfriends bullied and taunted Phoebe to the point where she was unsafe at school. And they did it knowing how emotionally fragile she was, and the personal losses she’d suffered before coming to their school.
Bazelon sees a lot of shades of gray in this story, but from where I’m sitting it still looks like this group of popular kids bullied a young woman to death. Read her essay and let us know how you see it?