Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

Phoebe tragedy could turn the tide in war on bullies

In the months since relentless bullying drove 15-year-old Phoebe Prince to suicide, the tale of the girl who’d moved from Ireland to a seemingly idyllic Massachusetts town only to find a personal hell has haunted America.

In fact, so strongly has Phoebe’s story resonated, that some think her death could prove a turning point in the uphill battle against bullying.

On Thursday the last three of the nine teens charged with offences ranging from civil rights violations to statutory rape were arraigned in juvenile court. Six of the nine will be tried as adults. All have pleaded not guilty.

Such is the outrage at their seeming lack of remorse (they allegedly posted “accomplished” on Phoebe’s Facebook wall after her death) that someone in California created mock websites for four of the accused girls, branding each a “bullying bitch.” Such cyber-vigilantism finds no truck with Brenda High, the founder of Bully Police USA, a website that grades each state’s legislative record on bullying.

“I’m not for retribution. Let justice take its course,” said High, who’s based in Washington state, “You don’t bully somebody because of their being a bully.”

In September 1998, after more than a year of harsh bullying, her 13-year-old son Jared shot himself to death. In 1999, she created a website to tell his story, and to offer assistance to anyone seeking help or advice. Over two million have visited the site.

High thinks that Phoebe Prince’s case could eventually be a watershed because such prosecutions are extremely rare. Still, she scoffed at reports that suggest a recent drop in bullying.

“There have been some media reports saying that the bullying situation is getting better. But that’s bull crap,” she said. “It’s not getting better. But, because of the information coming out about Phoebe and other ‘bullycides’ around the country, I think it may make some impact.”

However, High is also clear where the solution lies: with adults.

“We send our kids away to school for six, seven hours a day, and we expect the adults to take care of them,” she explained. “You’ve got to stop this at the adult level. If you don’t, you’re never going to get the problems solved with the kids.”

Psychology professor Elizabeth Englander also thinks that Phoebe’s suicide could be a catalyst for change. “The events of the case have created so much attention that it is going to really raise awareness about the problem,” said Englander, who directs the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre at Bridgewater State College.

“It is still in the news,” she added. “It is still being talked about in (the Massachusetts legislature). It has put a lot of momentum behind the (anti-bullying) bill that is currently being debated there.”

Prof. Englander, whose group helps schools develop anti-bullying strategies, said that work needs to begin when kids are young — long before the adolescent bullying reaches its peak.

And she said that most schools haven’t yet addressed cyberbullying.

“It’s a huge omission,” said Dr. Englander. “(The internet) is a huge feeder, and an interactive issue with this problem.”

The elephant in the room in the bullying debate is American pop culture.

Switch on a TV or radio any day of the week and you’ll find an array of talk show hosts bullying guests, guests shouting down each other, etc. Then there are the reality shows where contestants gang up to banish ‘unpopular’ rivals, often at the point of tears.

Stan Davis, a Maine guidance counsellor who’s done extensive bullying research, said that such shows “are horrendous models of how people interact with each other. And they’re all based around cruelty.”

Phoebe Prince’s suicide was indeed a devastating tragedy. All that can be hoped is that her story won’t be forgotten, and that it finally pushes enough adults to take teen bullying seriously.

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