Understanding Fatal Bullying in Schools

Commentators grapple with the tragic death of Phoebe Prince

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The story of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts high school student driven to suicide by bullying, has commentators searching for explanations. What follows is by no means a comprehensive guide to debate on the topic, but some of the clearer recent commentary from experts tracking the case closely.

  • Failure of Adults  The Boston Globe's Kevin Cullen has used his column repeatedly to reprimand many of the adults involved in the incident. He particularly targets the school officials, who are cooperating with the legal investigation but giving the media very little information. "Phoebe Prince was the victim of an ethos of secrecy," he says, and in her death there has only been "a ringing endorsement of the ethos of secrecy." He's unconvinced by school officials' statements saying lawyers have instructed them to remain silent: "very little good comes when there is a dead girl and secrecy is the most valued currency." He is one of many to fault officials' response, and also to point out (in another column) that the fight against bullying "starts at home." In response to calls for more laws against bullying, he retorts: "you can't legislate good parenting."
  • A Matter of Context, 'Differential in Power,'  Slate reprints an article on bullying by Yale psychology professor Alan Kazdin and Carlo Rotella. Bullying happens between individuals of differing levels of social power within a group, and can usually be stopped if peers intervene. "Even when the child who steps in is considered weak in the group's hierarchy of power, the bullying stops within 10 seconds in more than half the instances of intervention by peers." They actually say--contradicting Cullen's point--that teachers can't always do much: "teachers detect only about 4 percent of all incidents," partly because "a competent bully chooses opportunities precisely to exploit a lack of adult supervision."
  • Not About an Increase in Female Aggression  In The New York Times, researchers Mike Males and Meda-Chesney Lind rebut the notion that the Prince case is "evidence of a modern epidemic of 'mean girls' that adults simply fail to comprehend ... We have examined every major index of crime on which the authorities rely. None show a recent increase in girls' violence; in fact, every reliable measure shows that violence by girls has been plummeting for years."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.