How do you solve a problem like teenage bullying?

Because IC went offline last Friday while we worked on the redesign, I wasn’t able to post my usual Friday morning link round-up. (I know, it was hard for me, too.) One of the articles I had lined up that I didn’t want to go unmentioned was this excellent series from Emily Bazelon at Slate on the Phoebe Prince story.

Prince, you may remember, was the Massachusetts high school student (and recent Irish transplant) who committed suicide in January, purportedly as a direct result of the bullying she encountered at school. The story was horrible: Shy, outcast Irish girl is inexplicably made the target of racist and sexist slurs, even physical attacks, by a band of out-of-control teens at her school. With nowhere else to turn, Phoebe took her own life — and now her attackers are being brought to justice.

But is that really what happened?  Bazelon explains:

If you’ve read about the death of Phoebe Prince and its aftermath in People magazine or the Boston Globe or Boston Herald or the Irish Independent, or watched TV segments about the case, the image of Sean [one of Phoebe’s accused attackers] reading an anti-bullying message might seem like further evidence that bad kids were running the show at South Hadley High. But what if that’s wrong? What if Sean was in fact a strong kid who had looked out for weaker ones? What if there was no pack of untouchable mean girls ruling the halls of South Hadley High, as the Boston Globe column that kicked off national coverage of the case suggested?

In fact, Bazelon paints a very different picture — of a troubled teen whose parents were divorcing and didn’t recognize her signs of depression; of school administrators who didn’t communicate warning signs to parents or other teachers; of whispered rumors and veiled Facebook comments, not threatening attacks:

I’ve been reporting in South Hadley since February, as part of a series on cyberbullying. There is no question that some of the teenagers facing criminal charges treated Phoebe cruelly. But not all of them did. And it’s hard to see how any of the kids going to trial this fall ever could have anticipated the consequences of their actions, for Phoebe or for themselves. Should we send teenagers to prison for being nasty to one another? Is it really fair to lay the burden of Phoebe’s suicide on these kids?

Those aren’t idle questions for the students facing jail time. Their behavior is the stuff of homeschoolers’ nightmares, no doubt — but I can’t help but wonder where the teachers and administrators were in all this. Some of these students could face years in jail and entry on the sex-offender registry for being…well, snotty teenagers; while the adults at the school — who should know better — half-heartedly pursue anti-bullying programming and call it a day?

Be sure to read all of Bazelon’s report to see the many factors at play in the story. Is criminal prosecution really the best answer we have to this problem?

By

Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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