Today, I’m throwing eloquence out the window.
I just read an article in the latest issue of Newsweek, From Lockers to Lockup by Jessica Bennett, and it irritated the heck outta me. It mostly deals with the specific case of Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Massachusetts. After Pheobe committed suicide, several of the students who bullied her were charged with various crimes. It’s a complex situation and I’m not even sure where I stand on all the legal issues. But the legal issues aren’t what disturbed me about this article.
Let’s begin with a quote from South Hadley’s superintendent, Gus Sayer. While these are Mr. Sayer’s words regarding the bullies, they fit very nicely into the arc of Ms. Bennett’s article.
“These are nice kids, regular kids. They come from nice families. They were headed to college.”
Okay, can we at least be honest about the basics? Bullying is not what nice people do. Nice people, by definition, treat people nicely. Yes, everyone goes through phases. Hopefully these teens were not on the path to remain bullies their entire lives. But at the time Phoebe killed herself, they were not going through a “nice kid” phase (no matter how they acted around the superintendent).
What about regular? When you’re bullied, yes, it can feel like the whole world’s against you. But in truth, the majority of the students are not calling you a slut, threatening to beat you up, or throwing things at you from a moving car. The “kids” who are doing that are not the norm. They’re not regular.
The law (and the media) may assess the world in black or white, but the players in the case don’t fit into neat categories. Phoebe suffered a terrible tragedy, but court filings have since revealed she had her own demons, too. She struggled with depression, self-mutilation, had been prescribed Seroquel (a medication to treat mood disorders), and had attempted suicide once before.
I love when members of the media call out the rest of the media for not doing a good job assessing the situation. It’s often someone trying to call attention to the “real” issue, which only they have the guts to articulate. Unfortunately, Ms. Bennett says nothing new in her article. Plenty of articles (yes, in the media!) have pointed out Phoebe’s history of suffering.
But what is the point of even bringing that up? Well...
Yet they couldn’t have known how badly the stunt would end….In the case of Phoebe Prince, the answer of who’s to blame might change if you knew that she had tried to kill herself before the epithets, was on medication for depression, and was struggling with her parents’ separation.
Here’s the thing. That’s precisely why bullying is so dangerous. Bullies never truly know the people they’re bullying (unless they happen to be bullying themselves). Everyone has different thresholds and different histories. Whether you bully a depressed person or a non-depressed person, you’re still trying to make a human being suffer. That’s your intent. And in Phoebe’s case, they were very successful in making her suffer. But maybe this case is different. Maybe these bullies would’ve backed off had they known Phoebe’s “demons.”
After all, that’s what nice kids do when they discover a person’s weaknesses.
School bullying can be devastating, but social scientists say it is no more extreme, nor more prevalent, than it was a half century ago…Today’s world of cyber bullying is different, yes -- far-reaching, more visually potent, and harder to wash away than comments scrawled on a bathroom wall. All of which can make it harder to combat. But it still happens a third less than traditional bullying…
Let me get this straight. Cyber bullying is far-reaching, more visually potent, and harder to wash away, but it’s no more extreme than traditional bullying?
Let me put it another way. Traditional bullying is not as far-reaching, less visually potent, and easier to wash away…making it easier to combat.
So your point was…?
Look, if the article’s own calculations say cyber bullying is one-third less common than traditional bullying, that means it’s as common two-thirds of the time. 66%! And if cyber bullying is so much more extreme (despite an attempt to say more does not equal more), then that’s a huge problem.
The reality may be that while the incidence of bullying has remained relatively the same, it’s our reaction to it that’s changed: the helicopter parents who want to protect their kids from every stick and stone…
If you don’t agree with the other side, ridicule them! (After all, that’s what nice people do.) Apparently, not only is the other side afraid of sticks and stones, they’re afraid of every stick and every stone. In my opinion, it’s the responsible parents who do try to protect their children from sticks and stones. But they also realize that some sticks and stones will get through. Then it’s their responsibility to help their children learn from, and cope with, those bruises.
Massachusetts’s anti-bullying statute defines bullying as repeated behavior that, among other things, “causes emotional harm” or “creates a hostile environment” at school. If it were applied to the real world, wouldn’t most of us be bullies?
No, Ms. Bennett. Most people do not repeatedly cause emotional harm or create hostile environments. The fact that you think it’s normal for people to be like that is interesting, though. Troubling, but interesting.
Good job, Newsweek.