It has taken years to sink in, but with the suicide of 15-year-old
Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts this January, we parents have finally
got the message that bullying in our schools is a deadly serious
Most of us know Phoebes story by now: she was a pretty girl who moved to the
United States from Ireland last fall and then suffered months of abuse
from her classmates after briefly dating a popular football player at
South Hadley High School.
Apparently, a jealous girlfriend of the player enlisted her friends to
gang up on Phoebe, harassing her for months, both at school and over
the Internet. The final straw was one of the kids throwing a soda can
at Phoebe as she walked home from school last winter. That incident
on top of a thousand insults, taunts and curses led Phoebe to hang
herself from the stairwell in her familys home.
Fifteen years old.
Nine students will face trial as adults in Phoebes death on charges
including harassment, stalking, the violation of her civil rights,
statutory rape and assault with a dangerous weapon. But none of the
kids are currently in jail and you get the feeling that like most
privileged middle class youth in our nation who get into trouble with
the law, theyll get a slap on the wrist -- probation or a suspended
sentence -- and go scott free.
It has been interesting to watch the bleating of the school
superintendent in this case, who insists that the attacks on Phoebe
were duly noted by the school staff, as if merely reporting an
incident amounts to taking action. If all the school staff did was
file away a report or two, then perhaps they deserve to stand trial
with the bullies who got a free pass from their bureaucratic inertia.
No doubt there will be new laws coming down the pike which will
criminalize bullying. Good luck with that approach: if laws alone
could solve the problems of human nature then we would have been
living in a perfect world eons ago.
Too late, Ive learned in life that stopping bullies all gets back to
Members of my family were bullied in school as children and it proved
to be a life-shattering experience that ruined not just their high
school experience, but also crippled them emotionally for years.
My sister Sue. for one, was a sensitive and fragile person who did not
have the psychological resources to defend herself against bullies.
She didnt know how to roll with the punches or laugh it off.
Instead, she froze up with fear and uncertainty as they piled on.
My parents were loving people, but they were also naive and
unsophisticated -- only 10 years off the farm -- when we moved to the
metro Detroit area. All of us kids were in over our heads in that
faster environment, but especially Sue, who was absolutely shattered
by the torment of her classmates in junior and senior high. She
dropped out of school in the eighth grade, continued on haphazardly
here and there, and finally managed to earn her G.E.D. years later.
Sue never overcame the mental torture she endured in school and she
suffered physical and emotional problems for the rest of her short
life. Depression, anxiety, lack of confidence, suicide attempts --
those were the result of lessons received from bullies in high
At the time, my parents put their faith in the American credo of
self-reliance. Like many families, we thought that Sue could tough it
out and learn to face down her bullies, growing stronger and more
competent in the end. In retrospect, that ideal turned out to be a
harmful fantasy and a myth.
Comedian Bill Cosby, who is performing at the Odawa Casino in Petoskey
on May 8, doesnt buy the myth that kids can face down bullies alone.
Cosby has been speaking and writing about bullying for years and
feels that parents must take an active role in listening to their
children and speaking out on their behalf.
Bullies can sense when a child is insecure, sensitive and uncertain,
and they exult in lording it over an easy target. The Internet, with
its thoughtless ability to flame its victims, only adds to the pain by
spreading scorn and ridicule to their schoolmates.
Yet we cant trust the law to shape a bullys behavior -- not to
mention the groupthink practiced by the clique that drove Phoebe
Prince to her death. Nor can we count on teachers to catch every taunt
or vicious act when theyre riding herd on rotating classes of 25-30
kids at a time.
As Bill Cosby notes, only parents can stop bullies by listening to
their kids and offering a swift, measured response. That can mean
calling the bullys parents, demanding action at school, or even
seeking other education options. In short, getting in the bullys
face, even if its only to have a civil conversation over sodas with
the kid and his parents at a restaurant.
As parents, we must reject the myth that its good for kids to stand
up to abuse as a way to build character. As admirable as that may
seem, the truth is that some kids just arent mature enough to step up
to that ideal and feel stricken, paralyzed and defenseless -- a
weakness that bullies can sense.
Maybe thats why we have so many schoolyard shootings in America.
Kids who feel paralyzed and helpless at the hands of bullies finally
come to a solution that involves guns on campus and a murderous