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Phoebe Prince story: Much more than meets the eye

If parents want insights into both the Phoebe Prince tragedy and how bullying can develop in a high school today, read this in-depth piece in Slate.com. The writer, Emily Bazelon, was reporting this story for months, publishing interim pieces of it as the news broke from South Hadley, Mass. “My investigation into the events that gave rise to Phoebe’s death, based on extensive interviews and review of law enforcement records, reveals the uncomfortable fact that Phoebe helped set in motion the conflicts with other students that ended in them turning on her. Her death was tragic, and she shouldn’t have been bullied. But she was deeply troubled long before she ever met the six defendants. And her own behavior made other students understandably upset,” Bazelon writes.

By seeing the complexity of this case, maybe parents, educators, law enforcement people, and news media will understand how unrealistic it is to place blame quickly or assign it to any single entity (e.g., the school, “the bully” or bullying peer group, or the parents). Even when there’s a suicide, which suggests a clear target of social cruelty, a more granular examination usually shows that victimization gets spread around – and spread around very quickly, when digital technology is one of its distribution tools. I agree with Bazelon where she writes that “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.”

I deeply hope that, as a society, we’ll get more thoughtful in dealing with cyberbullying in the following ways: that we’ll…

  1. Not see it as “the new world of online cruelty,” a tagline with which Bazelon’s editors headed her article, because the cruelty part is not some new unknown we suddenly have to figure out how to address
  2. See cyberbullying, like bullying, as a behavioral issue (not a technology issue) for which we seek the help of counselors, psychologists, and other mental healthcare and risk-prevention practitioners
  3. Not reflexively bring in law enforcement and other experts on crime rather than adolescent development (emphasis on “reflexively”; thoughtful law enforcement support can help a lot, certainly if criminal intent is detected)
  4. See that punishment alone – whether suspension, expulsion, or prosecution – is a blunt-instrument approach to adolescent behavior and rarely resolves the struggles of the targeted student(s) or the bullying student(s)
  5. Treat incidents as opportunities from which as many people as possible – and ideally the school community as a whole – can learn the importance of perspective-taking and respect for self and others.

“In the end,” Bazelon writes in her conclusion to Part 3 of her series (see below for links), “the next chapter of the South Hadley bullying story isn’t really about innocence versus guilt. It’s about proportional versus disproportional punishment.” Right – for now – but I hope ultimately it’s much less about punishment and much more about healing – learning from such cases, lessening the impact of bullying on everyone involved, and then collectively seeing the need for and building a culture of respect in school communities.

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