Monday, April 05, 2010


Kind of a change of pace, and one that I am not really even sure that I have fully thought about. But, it is a worthy discussion topic, and will hopefully liven things up around here.

This has been a pretty big story around here, but I don't know if it has resonated nationally. The short version: a bunch of high school kids in South Hadley, MA harassed a teenage girl so badly that she ended up committing suicide. Late last week, the DA filed charges against a handful of the tormentors.

The girl's name was Phoebe Prince, and she was an Irish immigrant who moved here with her family at the beginning of the school year. The details are a little unclear, but it looks like she drew the attention of at least a couple of boys, and that the dissolution of those relationships started the trouble. She was then systematically bullied, harassed and insulted pretty relentlessly.

So, first of all...girls can be incredibly mean. Most of my readers are women, and I am sure that you remember what high school was like. We all like to look back and remember how mean other girls were...but if you search your memory honestly, you will probably acknowledge that you were no angel either. I know I wasn't.

Not only can girls turn on each other with incredible speed, but they can encourage others to do the same as well. I am sure that at one point, you hated some girl because your best friend and her best friend had a fight Now, imagine that you are a new girl in a new country who meets a couple of cute older boys and then suddenly finds that those boys friends have set about socially destroying you and nobody else seems willing to offer even the slightest help. It is not a huge leap to see where that would drive you to a pretty desperate place.

My real concern with all of this is in the charges being filed. While it is easy to see a tragedy in all of this, and there are plenty of people to be blamed at various levels, what are we hoping to accomplish by charging them?

First of all, charging the boys with statutory rape is outright ridiculous. As a brief primer, the law in Massachusetts says that if a person over age 16 has sex with a person under 16, it is rape. In most states, there are laws about the difference in age between the two people (so, you have to be at least two years apart in age, for example) but not here. And that, to be perfectly frank, is asinine. As the legal guardian of a girl who is very much the subject of this law (she is now 15 and draws intense attention from boys her own age, slightly older and much older), I am as sensitive to it as anyone and I am completely convinced that it's a foolish law.

Think about what this actually means: there are two boys who aged 16 and 17 that had consensual sex with a girl who was 15. Nothing coercive or underhanded...they met like high school kids meet, maybe went out on a couple dates, and decided to sleep together. (And no, not at the same time...two totally separate relationships). That is a sophomore boy and a freshman girl. Clearly, by the letter of the law, they are guilty, but is that really what we wrote statutory rape laws for? To make every single high schooler who has a younger girlfriend of boyfriend spend years in state prison and then register as a sex offender in every place they live for the rest of their life? We are going to start prosecuting 40% of high school kids now?

The other charges are a little harder to understand, so I am not real sure that I have an opinion on them...they largely relate to violating her civil rights by making it impossible for her to go to school. Seems like a huge reach to me but I will leave that to the legal minds. While there are some reports of people shouting things at her in the halls, and some reference to "Facebook bullying", it is not completely clear what their bullying consists of. And that makes it a little hard for me to judge their actions as well.

Then there is the issue of the school. There are all sorts of reports that the teachers and administrators knew what was going on and stayed out of it, but I am not really sure what the truth of that really is. The larger question is...what is the role of teachers in this? It is easy to assign teachers at least some role in monitoring or preventing harassment or bullying, but how much? Is that really a teacher's job? Do they really have the training and skills to do that? Because that really has absolutely nothing to do with teaching kids.

So, it is a really complicated case with a lot of different faces and I am not really sure that I have strong opinions on a lot of it. There is clearly a tragedy, and clearly some actions that are despicable and reprehensible...but before we go throwing people in jail, we should think about what that really means.

I expect a lot of thoughts on this one...send 'em by email if you would rather...


Katie said...

I am not familiar with this case at all so it is hard for me to have any strong opinions one way or the other.

However, I don't really agree with the whole idea of holding teachers and school administrators responsible in any way, shape, or form. They certainly had no inclination that the girl was suicidal or they would have intervened in some way. If her parents and friends didn't even recognize that she was suicidal, how can any of the school faculty be held responsible for her taking her own life?

And regarding the DA filing charges against the boys for having a sexual relationship with her, I am in agreement with you. They did something that kids do ... and she engaged willingly. Why ruin their life over this? Although these relationships ultimately led to her suicide, the statutory rape case is a whole separate issue.

Kari said...

Love this post!
Something(not related to this post) that I thought you might enjoy reading

I kept looking to see if it was originally posted on April 1 - but not so!

Hope the babes are behaving and you are getting some rest before the big day!


Accidentally Me said...

Kari - Interesting that you automatically thought of me when you read that story...not real sure what to make of that!!! And for real? Those people need to get over themselves and either not have a wedding or pay for it themselves, cause that is just tacky.

Oh, and he is totally still gay.

Me said...

I don't think anyone including the prosecutor expects them to go to jail. But it's a nice way to send a message. At the end of the day, it's parents that should teach children at an early age to take responsibilities for their actions in the hopes that when they are older they will hopefully pause and think..but sans accountability...
About the rape charges. Yeah, agreed. That was consensual, but I recall working at a newspaper reporter in a small New York town years ago and there were parents who would press charges because they were upset their daughter who was 15 had slept with her 18 year old boyfriend. it was absolutely heart wrenching because some of those boys ended up in the sex offender database and those parents: parental fail for putting the kids through that. Odd laws in America about these things. Again, I doubt that much will come of this case in the end. But I like that there is some discussion about this, on a national level....Bullies were always around, the Queen Bees, the girl everyone wanted as a friend and certainly not as a foe, so you either tried to stay under the radar or be her friend..but shit, now the kids that get bullied can barely escape. It used to be that you could go home, close the door and be with technology, they can get you everywhere.

Tammy said...

I live in Nebraska and I have seen this on the news several times. According to what I watched, the girls that were bullying Phoebe were calling her names like "whore" and "slut" and throwing things at her as she walked down the streets. They also would also verbally torture this girl at school - all because she dated these girls' boy-friends. I ABSOLUTELY think that the girls harassing her should be charged with assalt. If the only reason being for the charges is to prove a point to the rest of the teenage girls out there that this is unacceptable then so be it! The boys, if they participated in the bullying, they should be charged with assalt as well. The statutory rape charge is bogus. I agree with what you wrote.
The teachers SHOULD be held accountable for not providing a safe learning environment. I don't think that the police should charge them, rather the school should look at each teacher individually and see what/if any punishment should be handed down.
People need to be held accountable for their actions (or their non-actions).
This is going to sound horrible, but I am not excusing Phoebe either. The response to bullying is not to kill yourself - but I was not in her position so I do not know how bad it was for her - she needed to go to the authorities and report this. Bullying is never "cute" or "fun". It is just mean and needs to stop.

Lpeg said...

I think I agree mostly with Tammy. Especially in regards to the boys - the rape charges are bogus, but if they had a hand in the bullying, I agree they should get assault charges.

I feel bad for Pheobe - to have felt so bad that she needed to take her own life as opposed to talking to someone about it.. then again, I did read that she had been talking with a counselor the week before?

Monika said...

I am pretty sure that the mother isn't pressing charges and that her lawyer is moving towards where he thinks it should go to make a point.

I am familiar with Phoebe Prince's uncle (he is a psych professor at UNH) and the last time I knew she went back to Ireland. When she was here she pressed charges against the school for continuing to put information in the news but that was it before she left. After that from what I understood she left it in the hands of her attorney.

The reason for any of the charges is to make a point. Is it fair for those kids? Maybe not. Is it necessary? I think so. If they don't do it now, they wont do it the next time, or the next time. I really don't think these kids will actually serve any jail time, but that this is to show that bullying is not okay, and wont be tolerated.

I also completely disagree that monitoring bullying has nothing to do with teaching kids. When you become a teacher you are taking on a more of a role than just teaching your studied subject. They are the adult and authority figure for these kids for the majority of their interactions with other people in their developmental years.
Yes, parents need to teach their kids to be good people but parents aren't there at school, and I think it is safe to say parents assume that their teachers are instilling the same values under their watch.