Bullying and the Phoebe Prince Case

Two months ago, 15-year old Phoebe Prince hanged herself.  Prince, a freshman at South Hadley High School in western Massachusetts, was widely acknowledged to have been a victim of bullying, and her suicide helped jolt the state legislature into passing stringent anti-bullying bills.  (I discussed the Senate bill here.)  Now, nine teenagers implicated in tormenting Prince are facing criminal charges, including criminal harassment, stalking, and statutory rape.  District attorney Elizabeth Scheibel described Prince as the target of a "nearly three month campaign of verbally assaultive behavior and threats of physical violence ... It appears that (her) death on January 14th followed a tortuous day for her, in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse."

Do these charges vindicate anti-bullying legislation?  Not necessarily.  If the prosecution of Prince's alleged tormenters is merited, it suggests that laws against bullying may be redundant, at best.  At worst, (and often) anti-bullying regulation is overbroad, exerting control over students outside of school and infringing unduly on speech, especially when it addresses cyber-bullying.  The rash of recent cases targeting student online speech (especially speech critical of administrators), the use of child porn laws to prosecute teens for sexting, and the scandalous use of webcams to spy on students at home should make us skeptical of legislation aimed at curbing verbal "abuses."  Unprecedented freedom to speak and opportunities to disseminate speech (for better and worse) have naturally resulted in some harsh crackdowns on speech.

This does not mean that school administrators should only respond to bullying that is so severe, willful, and prolonged that it constitutes criminal harassment or stalking; but it may mean that unless bullying does constitute a criminal offense, it is not the business of legislators.  Or is it?  Advocates of anti-bullying laws will argue that school officials may ignore abusive behavior by students if they are not required by law to address and even report it.  Some teachers and administrators at South Hadley High School knew that Phoebe Prince was being harassed and did nothing to protect her, District Attorney Scheibel reported, calling official inaction "troublesome" (but not criminal).

But school officials who ignore obvious and extreme abuse of one student by small gang of teenage vipers are probably unfit to serve in schools; it's not clear that the problem of incompetent or grossly negligent officials can be solved with legislation.  Focusing on cyber-bullying, in particular, may even distract administrators from addressing actual harassment and stalking of the sort allegedly suffered by Prince.  It can also provide an excuse for inaction.  South Hadley School Superintendent Gus A. Sayer initially tried blaming Prince's suicide on cyber-bullying: "The real problem now is the texting stuff and the cyber-bullying,'' he told The Boston Globe, back in January.  "Some kids can be very mean towards one another using that medium.''  Sayer has, so far, declined to comment on the criminal charges, but the Huffington Post seized on his previous statement in its report today (Match 29th) on the Prince case: "Cyberbullies Charged with Harassing Phoebe Prince, Teen Who Killed Herself After Rape," its headline sensationally and inaccurately declares.  As District Attorney Scheibel stressed (in a widely reported remark), the campaign against Phoebe Prince was "primarily conducted on school grounds during school hours and while school was in session."  Old-fashioned, in person harassment and stalking -- not cyberbullying -- allegedly drove Prince to suicide, and, if these allegations are true, then old-fashioned criminal laws can bring her abusers to justice.