A Tormenting Problem: An Exploration of New-Age Bullying

So where’s the justice for Phoebe?

It’s been 44 days since 15-year-old Phoebe Prince saw no way out of the terrifying cul-de-sac she was forced into at South Hadley High School. The bullies who drove her to the noose might just as well have pushed her off a cliff, because that’s how utterly helpless she felt.

We are told that some of the people who tormented Phoebe have been disciplined. Some have left school. Whether it was on their terms or someone else’s, who knows?

We are told there has been some measure of justice delivered for Phoebe, but who believes this?

Phoebe Prince was the victim of an ethos of secrecy, of anonymity, of people whispering vile things in the corridors, of people typing worse things on their cellphones and computers. The insidiousness of the weapon used against her was its nebulous nature. It was hard to pin down, hard to see, like a poisonous vapor.

What killed Phoebe Prince can only live, can only thrive, in the shadows.

And what has been the official response to her death?

A ringing endorsement of the ethos of secrecy.

What does this say to the vast majority of good kids who are among the 700 in the high school, the hundreds of kids who turned out for a vigil, who cried tears for Phoebe, who have reached out to her family? The response can’t reassure the good kids. Instead it has validated the whole ethos of the bully: keep your mouth shut if you know what’s good for you.

Of course, Gus Sayer, the superintendent of schools, and Dan Smith, the principal, say they are merely following the advice of their lawyers, that even bullies are entitled to due process and privacy.
If you can’t blame the victim, blame the lawyers.

That’s what Cardinal Bernard Law did in the face of scandal. People cried out for transparency, and he pointed to his lawyers and said, in so many words, “They told me I can’t say anything.’’

That’s a marvelous strategy, and it worked so well for Cardinal Law, didn’t it?

The powers that be in South Hadley are acting as if this is nothing more than a dry legal process. But truth isn’t driving this process. Liability is. Avoiding a lawsuit from some mean kid’s parent is more important than the truth.

Sayer and Smith say they can’t even specify what sort of discipline they have meted out. This, no doubt, will be tremendous comfort to Anne and Jeremy Prince, to learn that they can’t be told who tormented their daughter and what consequences the bullies faced.

There was a telling moment the other night at a meeting in South Hadley, ostensibly to convene an antibullying task force. A group of people stood and gave Dan Smith a loud standing ovation.

Just what they were applauding is anyone’s guess, given that we don’t know what Dan Smith did or didn’t do about the bullies who hounded Phoebe, before and after her death.

Maybe they just wanted to show support for an embattled administrator. That’s fine, but what does it have to do with getting justice for Phoebe?

Last week, Darby O’Brien, the first parent to speak out publicly and suggest the school administration’s handling of the investigation into Phoebe Prince’s death was an exercise not in truth-seeking but in damage control, had a meeting with Gus Sayer and Ed Boisselle, the school committee chairman.

Sayer and Boisselle invited O’Brien to join the antibullying task force. O’Brien declined for many reasons, not the least of which is he thinks it’s a little ridiculous to expect lay people to do this, especially after the school department paid an international expert named Barbara Coloroso to tell them how to combat bullying last fall and then promptly ignored her.

But, in the end, O’Brien resisted their overtures on principle.

“They wanted to shut me up,’’ he said.

So, if you’re keeping score at home, this is what some people in South Hadley say has happened: the girl, the worst girl who made the torment of Phoebe Prince her life’s work, is gone. Moved to a school in a nearby town.
Another girl, who denied doing anything but laughing at Phoebe, is gone, too, off to a private school. Her family was victimized themselves by anonymous bullies, who used the Internet as a cudgel as surely as Phoebe’s tormenters did.

And the boy, the football player who Phoebe had a fling with, the social faux pas that landed her on the Mean Girls’ hit list? He’s gone, too. Some kids say he just dropped out. Whatever, he’s not been in school lately.
But some other kids who bullied Phoebe are in school. They’re walking around like nothing happened. Maybe they got a reprimand, or something written in their file.

No one knows for sure.

There are still kids who have not come forward, who have not been asked what they knew about what was done to Phoebe Prince.

And there are doubtless some kids who are unfairly suspected - maybe they’ve just been out sick a few days, and people wonder at their absence. Were they among those suspended?

If someone is treated that way, it would be totally wrong, totally unfair, and totally predictable, because very little good comes when there is a dead girl and secrecy is the most valued currency.