broadsideblog

Bullying Pushes Two More Girls To Suicide; Nine Massachusetts Students Indicted. It Must Stop!

In behavior, Crime, education on March 30, 2010 at 10:53 am

From the Daily News:

Cops are investigating whether cyberbullies contributed to the suicide of a Long Island teen with nasty messages posted online after her death.

Alexis Pilkington, 17, a West Islip soccer star, took her own life Sunday following vicious taunts on social networking sites – which persisted postmortem on Internet tribute pages, worsening the grief of her family and friends.

“Investigators are monitoring the postings and will take action if any communication is determined to be of a criminal nature,” Suffolk County Deputy Chief of Detectives Frank Stallone said yesterday.

Reports The New York Times:

It is not clear what some students at South Hadley High School expected to achieve by subjecting a freshman to the relentless taunting described by a prosecutor and classmates.

Phoebe Prince, 15, a freshman at South Hadley High School in western Massachusetts, hanged herself in January. Her family had recently moved from Ireland.

Certainly not her suicide. And certainly not the multiple felony indictments announced on Monday against several students at the Massachusetts school.

The prosecutor brought charges Monday against nine teenagers, saying their taunting and physical threats were beyond the pale and led the freshman, Phoebe Prince, to hang herself from a stairwell in January.

The charges were an unusually sharp legal response to the problem of adolescent bullying, which is increasingly conducted in cyberspace as well as in the schoolyard and has drawn growing concern from parents, educators and lawmakers.

In the uproar around the suicides of Ms. Prince, 15, and an 11-year-old boy subjected to harassment in nearby Springfield last year, the Massachusetts legislature stepped up work on an anti-bullying law that is now near passage. The law would require school staff members to report suspected incidents and principals to investigate them. It would also demand that schools teach about the dangers of bullying. Forty-one other states have anti-bullying laws of varying strength.

Maureen Downey, writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, asks the only important question:

For those of you who work in schools, why would administrators and teachers let this persecution go unchecked?

Research shows that bullying occurs in all schools, private and public, and that it is often unseen by adults. In an earlier blog on bullying, I cited a 2005 U.S. Department of Education report that found 14 percent of students ages 12 through 18 said they had been bullied in the past six months.

In the early grades, bullies direct their attacks at almost anyone. As they get older, they target certain kids. Bullies go after younger and smaller kids, but victims also are chosen because they are more anxious, sensitive, cautious and quiet.

Bullying is often a spectator sport, with 85 percent of  incidents involving other kids who watch the torment without stopping it. On the day of her suicide, Phoebe was abused her in the school library, the lunchroom and the hallways, according to the charges. Classmates threw a canned drink at her as she walked home, where her sister found her hanging from a stairwell at 4:30 p.m.

While Phoebe’s bullies used texting and social networking sites to harass her, the prosecutor said most of the bullying occurred on school grounds during school hours.

Like Phoebe, I arrived at my school into a group of 15-year-olds; I was 14, a year ahead. Like her, I came into a tightly-knit crowd of kids who had known one another for decades and from a foreign country. I’d been living in Mexico, (she in her native Ireland).

I was awkward, had acne, had just suffered a serious crisis within my family so wasn’t bouncy and cute and outgoing and conventional.

Perfect target.

I was mercilessly, relentlessly, daily and publicly bullied in Grades 10, 11 and 12 at my middle-class Toronto high school. I was nicknamed Doglin, had a gang of three or four boys barking at me down the hallways, had a dog biscuit laid on my desk in class, had my “nickname” shouted whenever it suited them. Teachers saw and heard. And did nothing.

I finally lost it in Grade 12 math class, as one of them, a stream of insults babbling out of his mouth sotto voce like some toxic soundtrack it was impossible to escape or shut off, hit my last frayed nerve. I’d already been going to see a therapist for years, who wanted to medicate me to relieve my (very real) anxiety. I had friends. I had a few teachers who treated me with great kindness and affection. But, short of changing schools (I’d already attended five by Grade 10), there was no relief to be had.

Our textbook that year was thick, weighing maybe two or three pounds, and I used it to whack the back of his head as hard as I could. God, that felt good!

The teacher, fully aware of the drama, quietly suggested I move to another seat.

Being bullied is one of the worst forms of torture. Unless you (as my partner also knows from his own childhood) or your kids have been through it, it looks harmless. The victim is always blown off, mildly advised to just ignore it, suck it up, walk away.

And if it were physical assault? Rape?

My parents were helpless and frustrated. This waking nightmare left me with a deep and abiding mistrust of “authority”  — since no one who had any did a thing to help or protect me. To this day, to my embarrassment, I can be extremely thin-skinned even in the face of the most loving teasing.

It must stop. School authorities, whether teachers or administrators, should be criminally liable.

  1. I agree, Caitlin. It’s a huge problem and the easy access to anonymity via the Internet makes it all the more tempting for the cowards who perpetrate this stunningly vicious behavior.

    Recently, a Facebook page was posted by a girl at our daughter’s middle school slamming the Principal. A bunch of other students piled on the comments. She was immediately suspended and the FB page taken down. There was a huge effort to bring in speakers about cyber-bullying, etc. I have no idea whether similar pages exist slamming other students, but one can only hope the reaction would be as swift to protect the kids as well as the administration.

  2. The problem with what you state is that schools do not have full parental authority to separate the children who are causing problems. The authority to do that is so diffuse and so difficult to marshal that few even bother to try except in very extreme and obvious circumstances.

    Why did this happen?

    It happened when school attendance became obligatory. In the days of my parents, you misbehaved, you would be suspended or expelled. Then you were on your own. There was a need for those who chose not to attend school. But that was then. Just try to do that today. It is nearly impossible –and the kids know it.

    Schools have become warehouses where children often learn all sorts of bad social behavior that we would rather they didn’t know. Many do not belong there. Some really need to be separated from the rest, if only to keep them from hurting themselves or others. But we don’t.

    There is no plan B. There is no room for someone who can’t graduate high school. There are very few laborer jobs available for someone like that. So we pass the trash. And the trash hurt others. And everyone acts so damned surprised when this results in fights, sexual assault, significant injuries, murder, and suicide.

    • This comment pre-supposes that kids who bully are destined to be high school dropouts. While I don’t have the stats, I can assure you that this despicable behavior isn’t only happening among the educational misfits. Far from it. The perpetrators are often the “cool kids” and the other elite cliques in school. And because these kids come from families of means, it’s difficult to expel them because school districts are afraid of lawsuits.

      • My contention is that they SHOULD have become drop-outs or expelled, but they haven’t because few can afford to expend the effort to do that for them.

        I’ll agree that if there are any nuances among social groups, the ugly behavior seems to be more prominent among those with greater economic means than those with less.

        Oddly enough, there is research that suggests that the kids who bully others are often the ones who become leaders later in life. The very thought horrifies and fascinates me at the same. time. On the flip side, many of these “cool” kids may not make it very far in to adulthood before getting in to very serious trouble. Life ain’t a bowl of cherries for those who torment others, either.

        There is much more to this problem than just a mere issue of discipline in the schools.

  3. imho, jake, thanks for weighing in.

    imho, it’s shocking to me how few people realize what vicious behavior does to the kids it’s directed at; while Alexis is being described as “depressed” — i.e. bullying was not responsible — seriously?! How about, bullying can make you feel extremely depressed? It took a tremendous amount of self-confidence to just walk into the school doors every morning, for me; she was a soccer star. (I stayed sane by competing well on a TV quiz show for teens and knew, if nothing else, I was smart.)

    jake, the problem is it isn’t just “the trash” that get away with it. It’s anyone who thinks they’re superior, can find enough others to agree with them and go from there.

    One of the very worst of “my” bullies is now…a cop. Makes me laugh. Not.

    • I suppose it depends on your definition of “trash”–it could very well reasonably be “anyone who thinks they’re superior.”

      And who could honestly be the least bit surprised that the worst bully you’ve known is now a cop? You could pick incidents virtually at will–oh, say, the tasering of the pregnant woman in Seattle who refused to sign her speeding ticket, or the trooper that pulled out and shot a family’s dog in front of them because it wouldn’t stop barking–and most are thoroughly condoned by columnists and judges and financed by taxpayers. A career in law enforcement is a bully’s nirvana, and I would be surprised if most cops didn’t learn their “people skills” in high school.

      It seems to me what’s different about this generation is the density and ubiquity of their social connections. Vile runaway orgies of coordinated sneering and ostracization are virtually guaranteed by the combination of communication technology and the unfortunate condition called “adolescence.” Sick punks can effortlessly shift between anonymity and glorious infamy. As has always been the case, adult sanction and disapproval are worn–and seen–as badges of honor by teenagers. The predictable “where are the parents?” lament mollifies the blameseekers as always, but it’s a question that presumes much and leads nowhere.

      That tragic girl needed someone on her side right when she was facing those rabid cretins and, heartbreakingly, she was alone…

  4. imho, this is my point…Kids who feel powerful, (wealth, social status, parents who will push hard for their own interests) are a victim’s worst nightmare.

    Bullies always choose kids they know are, somehow, both marginal and unlikely to fight back effectively — because they are marginalized (few friends), lonely, scared, physically weak/ugly/disabled or withdrawn.

    Bullying saps all your confidence and joy — without which it’s really hard to make and keep friends, which are the only antidote to the toxicity of being bullied. I was fortunate enough to have two or three loyal dear girlfriends in high school, right from the start when I arrived — one of whom is still a friend today — who helped me get through it and know that I was still loved and valued.

    A few years ago, I asked Sally, my friend then and now, why I was such a target. “Your were so confident,” said, unhestitatingly. “You scared the hell out of them.”

    • Bingo. You didn’t need them and they tortured you for it. I had a similar story–moved to a new city in the middle of 7th grade–and while I can’t say I was subjected to the same relentless bullying you were, I was always the new kid and it took a very long time to find good friends. I was lucky in that I was reasonably athletic and was always in the “smart classes”. My refuge was summer camp, sports, and a journal.

      My advice to kids who experience this persecution by mob rule is to find something you’re good at and spend a lot of time doing it after school with other kids who love doing it too. That way you don’t have to live or die by what the jerks at school think of you.

  5. imho, if it were not for summer camp, I’m not sure I could have survived it all. I loved it, was valued there and stayed 8 weeks every summer.

    The jerks at school are also people you spend a lot of time around physically, which is part of the toxicity — they can find you! then can scream abuse at you and throw things, as they did at Phoebe. It’s almost impossible to actually attend class and escape unscathed. Teachers MUST step in, step up and shut the abuse down!!

  6. Caitlin,

    I really like your blog. I have a personal story about discrimination against the mentally ill. I was wonder if you would be interested in doing a piece on it. There are many surprising details. You can reach me at the email address on the contact page at:

    http://www.bnymellon-lies.com

    Rob C

  7. Thanks. Best thing to do, Robc, is email me off this site.

  8. [...] Bullying Pushes Two More Girls To Suicide; Nine Massachusetts Students Indicted. It Must Stop! (trueslant.com) [...]

  9. “There is much more to this problem than just a mere issue of discipline in the schools.”

    How much of this stems from the kids’ parents? What other influences are at play?

    • There are three things that I can identify. the school environment, the technologies, and society’s needs and expectations.

      First, a school environment far from an ideal learning environment. I learned more culture, literature, math, and science on my own than I ever did in a classroom. We need to consider the alternatives to building great big warehouses where we institutionalize our children with the vague hope that they’ll learn something.

      The whole premise is wrong. Somewhere between the one room school house of our great grandparents and the ridiculous bureaucratic monstrosities that compose our schools of today, something crucial fell on the floor and rolled away.

      We got to where we are today because once upon a time, we could only circulate information through books, classrooms, black boards and so on. Today, we have this incredible tool called the Internet. A student doesn’t have to be anywhere near the school to attend or benefit from a lecture or a demonstration, or to submit questions in real time to an instructor.

      It used to be that when a student was suspended or expelled, that learning had to suffer. Well, these days it doesn’t. With modern Internet enabled devices, we can distribute classroom information in nearly complete form, even if nobody is in school.

      The second point is that children are grouped according to age, not ability. Thanks to the bureaucracy of schools, it is not easy to break out of this mold. Thus, kids who are adept at one or more subjects have very little opportunity to express themselves or to attend the kinds of learning environments they’d like. This leads to a trapped feeling and a general disgust or malaise with having been lumped with a bunch of others who do not share their passions or curiosities.

      Third, we have made school attendance mandatory. Again, this was once a technological necessity, but it isn’t any more. Meanwhile, working parent families can’t simply leave their kids at home to get in trouble. So they hope that the school will take that place. Maybe we need a different sort of institution where kids get coached and socialized across a wider array of people instead of relentlessly picking on each other.

      The whole concept of a high school and even a college needs to be re-examined. The current version has strayed a long way from what it once was and has now become a bureaucratic and political nightmare.

      And right now the only agreement is that nobody likes it.

  10. [...] the case of South Hadley, school officials were found to have known of the extent of bullying against 15-year-old Phoebe Prince. So far in Carmel, administrators and coaches have pleaded ignorance to anything that has happened. [...]

  11. Caitlin, I was bullied all through school because I was the “fat kid” even though I really wasn’t very fat–more plump. Unlike you who radiated confidence I radiated the opposite–I was terribly insecure and had victim written on my forehead.

    Two things: I recently read a terrific story–wish I could remember where–about the rise in bullying as a result of the death of the old-fashioned culture of childhood, where kids played together voluntarily, were on their own without parental supervision, and learned give and take and other social skills. Now kids are isolated in front of their computers, TVs, Nintendos and often don’t have the socializing benefits of play to teach them how to get along. Of course there was bullying back then–both of us were around at the time, but I don’t think it was as bad or as vicious. I was teased but not actually tortured, except in camp (opposite of your experience.)

    Now I am the mother of a bully–an adopted daughter who doesn’t have friends, lacks social skills, has emotional problems and reacts with aggressiveness. She is closely monitored by the school and by parents so it doesn’t go too far–she’s been in special ed until recently. But being the mom of a bully gives me a whole new perspective on how bullies are outcasts too.

    Bullying needs to become totally socially unacceptable or it will continue–schools need to be on top of the issue at all times. Until they are parents need to intervene. A neighbor had a son who was being bullied and she got the school district to pay for private school since they seemed unable to make it stop.

  12. I agree that kids need to be socialized — and sitting in front of a machine or PDA all day long isn’t going to help. People are so much less manageable than technology and can’t be clicked off if they become boring or annoying.

    I don’t envy mothering someone who bullies. Some are outcasts, but others develop an entire posse who gang up en masse — those are terrifying to victims. I can usually deal one on one (although bosses are problematic.)

  13. Here’s an idea–how about we actually **sanction** bullying? Of bullies, that is. I recall back in the 80′s Curtis Sliwa and the “Guardian Angels” called upon themselves to patrol the NYC subway system and foil the bullies (usually called “muggers”) that infested the cars and platforms. They wore pseudo-military ensembles and were trained to make citizen’s arrests–but most often their simple presence was an effective deterrent. Perhaps something similarly righteous-feeling could pull a lot of bullies into policing each other…

  14. [...] Bullying Pushes Two More Girls To Suicide; Nine Massachusetts …From the Daily News: Cops are investigating whether cyberbullies contributed to the suicide of a Long Island teen with nasty messages posted online after her death. Alexis Pilkington, 17, a West Islip soccer star, took her own life ……[Read More] [...]

  15. So what happens if a child simply refuses to attend school because of bullying? Does the state prosecute them for truancy? Probably.
    And what does the prosecutor say in response to this? “Tough?” This means that the state has a license to torture children.

    You say “it must stop.” Or what? Or ELSE?

    How about we simply ENFORCE THE LAW?

    Yes, bullying IS against the law, believe it or not; lawyers simply don’t talk about this much, because they only have dollar-signs in their eyes.

    However as I explain on my website http://bullyjustice.webs.com , there are MANY laws which protect against bullies quite adequately– and which can make schools and even governments protect children.
    It simply requires that victims know their RIGHTS, and how to access them.

    To put it bluntly, schools don’t give a damn about children’s rights– they might talk about such; but talk is cheap, while their actions clearly indicate otherwise. Schools clearly place their own interests first– which are in the opposite direction of the child’s.

    To cure this, victims must know their rights, and the recourse available to them if these rights are violated; otherwise, such right are purely meaningless, idealistic and hypothetical, and only add insult to injury when a child is forced to recite an oath of loyalty to the state ending with “liberty and justice for all.”
    However once victims know and anticipate this final recourse, they can take any appropriate steps up necessary to solve the problem, to and including this final recourse of prosecuting the bullies, schools and government.
    For example, bullies can be sued for their unlawful behavior– as can schools and other parties whom the law holds liable; even governments can be sued for their respective culpability and wrongdoings.

    Again, while legal action may not be the approprite remedy for a particular case, it MUST be included in the potential recourse of the victim; otherwise the bully and various enablers (i.e. schools and others who contribute to the bully’s behavior with their various actions and inactions) will have no incentive to change their behavior.

    In contrast, the law EXISTS for the very purpose of securing individual rights;
    but the school system has suppressed children’s rights for so long, that it has also suppressed the very idea that such laws exist– or are being broken in any way. Rather, the school simply DENIES bullying altogether– instead blaming the victim in any way possible, while leaving children to fend for themselves.

    While most of this is due to the very existence of the school-system itself –i.e. state-authorized institutions which can subjugate individual liberty for state-interests, and thus are antithetical to civil liberties and indivdiual rights– the fact is that schools and bullies are NOT above the law, and can be held responsible for their actions and omissions in violating the rights of children and students.

    In addition to informing people of their rights, I hope to soon form an association of lawyers who are willing to take on bullying-cases; this would be every bully’s worst nightmare.

  16. Brian, thanks. Since writing here and in USA Today about this issue, I’ve heard from many parents of bullied kids and those who were bullied in the past. Some of them, like you, are taking action.

    Please email me privately as I am talking to a national magazine about doing a story on these efforts.

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