PHOEBE PRINCE'S SUICIDE HIGHLIGHTS THE PRESSING ISSUE OF BULLYING

By Alan Shapiro

 
 
 
To the Teacher:
 
The suicide earlier this year of Phoebe Prince, 15, after she experienced months of name-calling, harassment, stalking, and threats of violence, brought bullying to the fore as a school issue. The local district attorney has filed felony charges against six students, and a controversy has festered over what school officials knew about the bullying of Phoebe Prince, when, and what the quality of their response was.
 
The first student reading below describes the events leading to the young girl's suicide. The second reading explores the depth of the bullying problem and describes an approach to countering it. Following the readings is an outline for small group discussion in which students share their experiences with bullying and discuss what their school is doing or should do to counter bullying. (If you aren't clear on your school's policies on bullying, you might want to get that clarification before beginning this lesson.)
 
An end note describes Morningside Center's "Pathways to Respect," an extensive schoolwide anti-bullying program that teachers and administrators may be interested in exploring further.

 

Student Reading 1: 

Phoebe Prince's Story

 
 
"School has been close to intolerable lately," Phoebe Prince, 15, reportedly told a friend on January 13, 2010. Her younger sister found her dead, hanging by a scarf, the next day.
 
A group of girls at South Hadley High in Hadley, Massachusetts, had tormented Prince for weeks, calling her an "Irish slut," among other names, and threatening to beat her up. On the afternoon of her suicide, one of the girls called her a name and threw a soda can at her. Prince walked home crying,
 
Phoebe Prince was born in England, moved to County Clare in the Republic of Ireland when she was two, and immigrated to the United States in the fall of 2009.
 
"'Ms. Prince had initially thrived at school,'" said Superintendent Gus Sayer. But after an incident in November that Sayer could not describe, "officials realized that she had become unhappy, and started monitoring her," reported The New York Times. Sayer said: "We were aware of some of the things that changed for Phoebe, but we weren't aware of any bullying...If she had said she was being bullied we would have acted on it immediately." (Erik Eckholm and Katie Zezima, "Court Documents Detail a Teenage Girl's Final Days of Fear and Bullying," New York Times, 4/9/10)
 
Early in the school year, Phoebe had brief relationships with Sean Mulveyhill, a senior and football star, and with Austin Renaud, 18. Apparently as a result, the girlfriends of both these young men (Flannery Mullins and Sharon Chanon Velazquez) began bullying Prince. In one case, reported the Times, "a teacher saw Ms. Velazquez bring Ms. Prince to tears before class and reported it; Ms. Velazquez, who had often been heard berating Ms. Prince and who said she would 'punch her in the face,' was suspended for one day…."
 
In late March, two months after Prince's death, District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel brought felony charges against six Hadley teenagers—two boys and four girls, ages 16-18—that include statutory rape, violation of civil rights, bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly.
 
Scheibel said it was "common knowledge" among students at the high school that Prince had endured a three-month campaign of bullying— verbal assaults and physical threats against Prince. According to The New York Times: "It was particularly alarming, the district attorney said, that some teachers, administrators and other staff members at the school were aware of the harassment but did not stop it…." (Erik Eckholm and Katie Zezima, www.nytimes.com, 3/29/10)
 
Edward Boisselle, the school committee chairman, was quoted in the Boston Herald asking, "Did they go interview all 700 kids at the school and find out that more than 300 knew about it? Isn't that the only way you could tell that they factually knew about it?" In print interviews and on CNN, Superintendent Sayer said that the high school "did all it could for Phoebe." Boisselle "has publicly questioned the district attorney's characterization of the facts" in the case, according to Emily Bazelon's article in Slate ("The Blame Game," www.slate.com, 4/5/10).
 
Scheibel said the DA's investigation revealed "relentless activities directed toward Phoebe to make it impossible for her to stay at school." The conduct of those charged, she said, "far exceeded the limits of normal teenage relationship-related quarrels."
 
"Phoebe's picture was scribbled out of a student-body photo hanging on a classroom wall. The bullies slammed her on Facebook and sent her mean text messages. The attacks culminated on the day of her death in 'a torturous day' during which Phoebe was harassed in the library, in the hallways, and walking down the street on her way home." (Emily Bazelon, "Suicide in South Hadley," www.slate.com, 4/30/10)
 
The same day "one of the accused bullies wrote 'accomplished' as her status on her Facebook page, according to the mother of a schoolmate…." (www.bostonherald.com, 4/2/10)
 
 
For discussion
 
1. Do students have emotional reactions to the reading that they want to share?
 
2. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
3. District Attorney Schiebel disagrees sharply with Sayer and Boisselle. Based on what you have read and anything else you have learned, whose point of view comes closest to yours and why? 
 
4. One definition states that bullying "involves (1) a pattern of repeated aggression, (2) a deliberate intent to harm or disturb a victim despite the victim's apparent distress, and (3) a real or perceived imbalance of power." (Lyznicki, Mccaffree, Robinowitz, American Family Physician)
 
Ask students to consider three elements in this definition. Have they observed or experienced examples of each? Do they disagree with anything in the definition? Why? What, if anything, would they add or subtract? Work towards consensus on a definition to use in the discussion following the next reading.
 
 
 

Student Reading 2:

Bullying is a big problem, but there are solutions

 
 
In the aftermath of Phoebe Prince's suicide, much attention has been focused on who is to blame. The DA is charging six students. Others have charged teachers and administrators at the school for not doing more to stop the bullying of Prince.
 
Meanwhile, in schools throughout the country, bullying continues. Though it rarely ends in suicide, it does take a huge emotional toll—not only on those who are bullied, but on the bullies, on the bystanders, and on the climate of the school.
 
In a survey of over 15,000 public and private school students, grades 6-10, by the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2001), 17% said they’d been bullied “sometimes” or more often in the school term, and 19% said they had bullied others. Six percent said they’d been both bullies and bullied. Surveys of middle and high school students in the New York City public schools in 2007 asked how often students threatened or bullied other students in their school. Some 47 percent responded “some of the time”; an additional 15 percent responded “most of the time”; and an additional 14 percent responded “all of the time.”
 
Students themselves see bullying as a major problem. A Kaiser Family Foundation study of 8-15 year olds found that more students picked teasing and bullying as “big problems” than picked drugs or alcohol, racism, AIDS, or pressure to have sex. More African Americans saw bullying as a big problem for people their age than they did racism.
 
Unfortunately, many students have little confidence in the ability of adults to help or protect them from bullying. Several studies show that between 4 percent and 13 percent of middle and high school youth said they would report an incident of bullying to a teacher, administrator, or other school staff member. Study after study shows that students think that adults are unaware of bullying or are not interested in stopping bullying.

 
How can we stop bullying?
 
Dan Olweus, Professor of Psychology at the University of Bergen, Norway, is considered the leading authority on how to address bullying. In his research, Olweus found that just cracking down on the "bullies" does not stop bullying in a school. Instead, the evidence showed that it takes work by everyone in the school to counter bullying.
 
The New York State Department of Education proposes an approach to bullying that draws on Olweus' research. It recommends that:
 
• The entire school community—students, teachers, support staff, security staff, kitchen staff, guidance counselors, parents and guardians—needs to understand what bullying is, the dangers of letting it continue, and what the school plans to do about it.
 
• School can address bullying by developing a school-wide, no-bullying policy: Members of the school community should agree on standards of behavior and on consequences. 
 
• We need to teach bystanders how to stop bullying as a group. Students can learn ways to help create an atmosphere of support and encouragement for targets of bullying and of disapproval toward bullying.
 
• Schools need to establish anonymous procedures for reporting bullying incidents: Most bullying happens when adults are not around. Students need to know that they can report bullying without provoking more bullying. If they are bystanders, they need to feel that they will not be the next victim. A school can set up a secure box into which students can put notes or it can designate trusted teachers who will maintain strict confidentiality when students come to them.
 
• Adults need to intervene no matter how minor the incident.
 
• Both bullies and targets—and their families—can benefit from educational and counseling programs.
 
( Adapted from Fuchs-Nadeau, D., LaRue, C.M., Allen, J., Cohen, J., & Hyman, L. (2002), "Interpersonal Violence Prevention Resource Guide: Stopping Youth Violence Before It Begins." New York State Center for School Safety.")
 
The Massachusetts legislature, spurred by Phoebe Prince's death, has approved a bill requiring an anti-bullying curriculum for schools in the state. The bill also requires that principals report bullies to law enforcement if they determine that criminal charges are warranted.
 
 
 
For Discussion
 
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. In your experience, is bullying widespread in schools?
 
3. According to the evidence, often students do not report bullying to adults in schools. Why do you think this would be?
 
4. Does Dan Olweus' approach to countering bullying make sense to you? Why or why not? 
 
 
 

Small Group Discussion

 
An introduction and a caution: This activity can multiply student conversations and promote participation. At the same time, students who themselves have been bullied (or have been bullies themselves) may be embarrassed, afraid, or, for other reasons, reluctant to speak about their experiences.
 
A safe environment is critical. Fear of ridicule, for example, can make students feel it is safer to stay silent. Community-building activities and participation in decision-making about the classroom are among the procedures contributing to a class environment in which students are more likely to be willing to take risks and speak to the bullying issue.
 
Before beginning, ask students to keep in mind the agreed-upon definition of bullying.
 
Create groups of four to six or seven students sitting in a circle. One student begins the go-around without being interrupted, followed by each of the other students who wishes to speak. After everyone has had that opportunity, provide some time for any clarifying questions and brief discussion.
 
Sample questions for the go-around:
 
  • What experiences with bullying have you had?
     
  • Have you witnessed or personally experienced bullying in school? Outside of school?
     
  • If so, what happened?
     
  • Did anyone try to stop the bullying? Other students? Teachers? Administrators? How?
     
  • With what results?
     
  • What are typical bullying behaviors?
     
  • How serious a problem do you think bullying is in this school? 
     
  • Does the school have an anti-bullying policy? 
     
  • If so, what do you know about its contents and their effectiveness?
     
  • If not, what do you think the school should do to prevent bullying?
 
Resume full class discussion. Invite comments from students based on what they have said and/or heard in their groups. Include discussion on and the effectiveness of the school's anti-bullying policy, if there is one.
 
If there isn't, should there be? And if so, what should it include? A brainstorming session might be in order to generate as many ideas as possible quickly. During the session, ask students to hold their comments and reactions to other people's ideas until everyone who wants to has had a chance to speak. Then invite discussion. Can the group reach agreement on the best ideas and eliminate those it regards as unworkable or inappropriate. Work for class consensus, following which the group might consider to whom it might submit its ideas.
 
 

End Note to Teacher:
 
Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility has developed a program to counter bullying in middle schools, called "Pathways to Respect." The program, which includes a course for students, is a research-based, whole-school approach to countering bullying. It includes professional development for teachers to support their classroom work on the curriculum as well as counseling for students, parents or guardians, and bullies. Although the program is aimed at middle schools, it can be adapted for elementary and high schools. Contact Lillian Castro at Morningside Center about bringing the program to your school: lcastro@morningsidecenter.org.
 
The New York City Department of Education' s RfA program aims to foster respect and counter bullying in schools. 
 
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org