Contributed by Annamarya
Phoebe Prince was a beautiful brunette with a full smile and sweet eyes. Late this past summer, she and her family immigrated to America from Fanore, a quaint seashore town in Clare, Ireland. They settled in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where their extended family lived. Prince attended South Hadley High School for few months before she committed suicide on January 14, 2010 – at the age of 15. And why did she take her own life? Because she couldn’t take being bullied anymore.
The “initially…relatively popular” Prince allegedly dated two boys two of her six tormentors (four girls and six boys) dated. These two brief, innocent flings angered the two girls and, deciding payback was the only appropriate response, put Prince through weeks of physical and emotional violence. On the day of her suicide, she was harassed in the school’s library and after school let out. While she walked home, one of the girls drove by, taunted her and hurled a can at her. Prince went inside her home and hung herself in the stairwell – dead by 4:55 pm. The six accused – 16-year-olds Ashley Longe, Flanner Mullins and Sharon Chanon Velzquez, 17-year-olds Sean Mulveyhill and Kayla Narey, and 18-year-old Austin Renaud – were charged with felonies in connection to bullying that, prosecutors say, led to Prince’s death.
The saddest part about this story is that while a sickening one, it’s not uncommon. In May, 16-year-old Christian Taylor, and 11-year-olds Celina Rebecca Okwuone and Ty Field, committed suicide on separate occasions. So did 13-year-old Jon Carmichael in March. And 13-year-old Hope Witsell in 2009. And 12-year-old Maria Herrera in 2008. And 13-year-old Megan Meier in 2007. And 16-year-olds Kristina Arielle Calco and Jeffrey Scott Johnston in 2005, respectively. And 13-year-old Corinne Wilson in 2004. And 14-year-old Matthew Alexander Epling in 2002. And 14-year-old April Himes in 2000. And Jared Benjamin High in 1998. And countless other. All because they were viciously bullied. All because they felt the only way to end the bullying was to remove themselves from the equation.
What’s worse? It took Phoebe Prince’s death for Massachusetts lawmakers to sign Anti-Bullying legislation into law. And when did that happen? On May 3. Bullying is nothing new, so why did it take a suicide – one that could’ve been prevented if school staff didn’t ignore what was happening rightunder their noses – for lawmakers to take action in protecting students?
This reactive approach isn’t only the case in Massachusetts. In New York, Governor Paterson pushed for an anti-bullying hotline for schools this month after The NY Daily News reported on 14-year-old Bronx resident Kimquan Green, who, still alive, was bullied in school – yet, after The NY Parenting Issues Examiner reported in February that classmates of five-year-old Jazmin Loving, a student at Brooklyn’s P.S. 161, repeatedly kicked her and cut off her hair, no action was taken. Even worse, after 17-year-old Long Islander Alexis Pilkington committed suicide in March because of cyber bullying, no action was taken.I’ll give New York this – last Tuesday, the senate passed The Dignity for All Students Act, which protects students from bullying and harassment in schools based on race, sex, sexual orientation, gender, weight, ethnicity, religion or disability, but it took nearly a decade to happen! (The assembly passed the bill in May for the ninth time since 2002).What is going on here?
This is what’s going on:
Adults are “often unaware of bullying problems” and 25 percent of teachers “see nothing wrong with bullying or putdowns and consequently intervene in only four percent of bullying incidents.”
“70 percent of teachers believe that teachers intervene ‘almost always’ in bullying situations” – only 25 percent of students agreed; and often, students feel “adult intervention is infrequent and unhelpful and they often fear that telling adults will only bring more harassment from bullies.”
Girls who bully are more inclined to use various methods of emotional violence, and those bullying tactics by girls are often brushed off as cruel but normal social interactions.
In Phoebe Prince’s case, her aunt allegedly warned school officials prior to enrollment that she was susceptible to bullying, but it was shrugged off. And court documents only mention three occasions where school staff “either witnessed or were told of the alleged bullying.” Three? After months of bullying, they can only cite three? Maybe not all incidents weren’t seen or reported, but when you have parents of other South Hadley High School students claiming their kids were bullied and “nothing was done” when it was reported, coupled with the above statistics and the fact that Angeles Chanon, the mother of Sharon Chanon Velazquez, blames Prince for “starting it,” according to a March 30 article in The NY Daily News, you have to wonder if people at South Hadley even cared.
This isn’t to say nothing is being done to help people understand and prevent bullying – there are a number of books and initiatives that exist solely for that purpose (such as the US Department of Health and Human Services Stop Bullying Now! Campaign). But there just isn’t enough being done – at least on the adult level. As someone who was bullied, it’s understandable why kids don’t fight back or don’t want to intervene – you either desperately want to fit in, not wanting to be a bully’s victim, or you’ve been beaten down so much, you start believing what is said about you. But adults? That I do not understand. Why? Because if you choose a profession in the education field, you’re automatically charged with protecting your students. You’ve sworn, while unwritten and unspoken, to teach kids, help them blossom and do whatever necessary to make them safe. And the same goes for families – both of the bully and the bullied. You can’t turn a blind eye to what the kid is doing or going through. You can’t toss it aside and say it’s just part of being a teenager. You can’t tell them they’re “an easy scapegoat” and not to let it bother them. You can’t ignore the cries for help. And you can’t just suspend a bully because that doesn’t solve the problem either. You set an example for kids and if you don’t care, there’s no hope for them.
There needs to be mandatory training on bullying – causes, effects, psychosocial reasoning, and prevention – that all students & their families and school staff are required to attend. Family members need to engage in daily dialogue with their relative about their school lives and emotional state. Faculty and administrators that witness bullying should be prepared on how to talk to both bully and bullied about what happened, why it is happening, why the bully feels the need to act out, and how the bullied feels as a victim. There is a reason it happens and someone – the family member, the teacher, the counselor, whoever – needs to get to the heart of the problem.
Change only comes through understanding.