On January 14, 2010, Phoebe Nora Mary Prince, an immigrant from Ireland, hung herself on the stairwell leading to the second floor of her family’s home. She had endured yet another day of bullying and torment at South Hadley High School in Hadley, Massachusetts, compounded by the fact that the group of girls who harassed her most threw a can of Red Bull out a car window, hitting Prince as she walked home from school.
What emerged in the months following Prince’s death was that this abuse had been going on for some time. Kids at the school routinely knocked Prince’s books from her hands, threw things at her in the hallway, scribbled her face out of photographs, and even sent her threatening text messages. Particularly ruthless was a group of girls who have been dubbed “the Mean Girls” for their resemblance to the characters in the 2004 movie. They called Prince “Irish slut” and “whore,” both in school and on the social networking site Facebook, as well as on Twitter, Craigslist, and Formspring. Evidently the girls started bullying Prince after she briefly dated a popular senior football player at the beginning of her freshman year. Even after Prince’s suicide, the girls posted mean comments on the Facebook page that was to serve as a memorial for their classmate.
On March 29, 2010, authorities announced that they had indicted nine teenagers for bullying Prince and prompting her suicide. Seven girls and two boys were charged with a variety of offenses, including statutory rape for the boys, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, criminal harassment, and stalking. The announcement came far too late for some in the community, who were enraged that the girls had seemed to be able to get away with their horrific behavior. Investigators had looked at whether the school should face some blame, given that some officials admitted they knew Prince had been bullied, with some even witnessing it. Investigators found there was no criminal responsibility, but stated that the behavior of some adults was certainly troubling. On April 8, 2010, three of the girls entered “not guilty” pleas to the charges. Reports are that the girls are receiving hateful messages and that social networking sites and message boards have featured calls for them to suffer like Prince did.
Unfortunately, Prince’s suicide is not the only recent one related to bullying–an outcome that experts have come to call “bullycide.” Only a few months prior to Prince’s death, 17-year-old Tyler Lee Long, who suffered from Asperger’s syndrome (a mild form of autism), endured similar humiliation at the hands of classmates at Murray County High School in Georgia. The bullying began in fifth grade, when one student began pushing Tyler around. From then on, he faced a torrent of verbal and physical abuse on a daily basis. As in Prince’s case, adults were generally indifferent to Long’s plight. When the family reported the incidents, the school’s response was generally “Boys will be boys.” At the beginning of 10th grade, Long was pushed down a flight of stairs, yet the school still took no action against the perpetrators. Long hung himself from his bedroom closet door on October 17, 2009. In March 2010, his parents filed suit against the Murray County School District and Murray High School principal Gail Linder for failing to protect Tyler, even after they had repeatedly told Linder about the bullying. An attorney for the district and Linder has said the defendants had no information to suggest Long was being bullied.
Parents, including the Longs, are growing frustrated with what they have called the “see no evil” approach on the part of schools. They suggest that schools too often characterize bullying as a harmless adolescent rite of passage. Parents have begun to organize anti-bullying campaigns. Groups providing anti-bullying curricula and programs are now sure to include cyberbullying in their materials.
Statistics are not clear about how often bullycide occurs. Bullying itself occurs regularly. Bullying is ultimately about power; it is intentional mistreatment with the goal of obtaining and maintaining power over the victim. In 2009, the National Center for Educational Statistics found that almost one-third of students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied in school, an increase of more than 20% from 2001. Part of this increase, however, may be the result of more and better reporting.
Cyberbullying may be even more common. A 2008 study in The Journal of School Health found that 75% of teens have been bullied online, but only 10% reported the problem to their parents or other adults. It is easier for bullies to harass their victims online than in a face-to-face manner, and they can engage in cyberbullying from anywhere, at any time. Like face-to-face bullying, cyberbullying often targets those who are different, including minorities, children with disabilities, those who are smaller than classmates, or very heavyset kids.
It is clear that bullying has significant negative effects, even if it does not lead the victim to suicide. Victims are often depressed, which leads them to become even more isolated. They may miss school, and their performance is likely to suffer. In addition to the impact on victims, bullying damages the climate of the entire school. Violence prevention and anti-bullying programs are increasingly focusing on how to improve the overall school climate. These considerations include the physical facilities, trust and respect among teachers and students, openness to new ideas, opportunities for all to participate, and much more.
Experts caution against standing up to bullies–the response that is so often presented in film and television. The concern is that bullies tend to have either a size advantage or a cohort of supporters, and maybe both. Further, bullies tend to have above-average self-esteem and see themselves as entitled; thus they are not likely to respond to reasoning.
Experts suggest several elements are critical for dealing with bullies. First, adults must intervene on behalf of the victims. Studies have shown that bullies are most likely to cease harassing victims when adults become involved. Having more adults present is a first step, followed by vigorous enforcement of policy when an incident occurs. Second, children should be empowered to intervene when they are bystanders to bullying. Third, bullies must be punished fairly and consistently. Finally, it is essential that the entire school community, including students, administrators, staff, and parents, receive anti-bullying training.
- Clark-Flory, T. (2010, April 8). Phoebe Prince’s bullies get bullied. Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2010/04/08/phoebe_prince_bullies_get_bullied/
- Kennedy, H. (2010, March 29). Phoebe Prince, South Hadley High School’s “new girl,” driven to suicide by teenage cyber bullies. New York Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/phoebe-prince-south-hadley-high-school-new-girl-driven-suicide-teenage-cyber-bullies-article-1.165911
- Parker-Pope, T. (2007, November 27). More teens victimized by cyber-bullies. The New York Times, p. 1-1. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/11/27/more-teens-victimized-by-cyber-bullies/