Sometimes the application of the Golden Rule actually leads us away from an ethical result.
The suicide of a 15-year-old South Hadley, Mass girls who had been the victim of bullying and web attacks by fellow students continues to be framed as the failure of school administrators to protect the girl. What the school knew and when they knew it is the object of current investigation and controversy, but there is an inherent public and media bias in such cases that is rooted in laudable ethical motivations, indeed, it is rooted in the Golden Rule. But that bias often results in unfairness and injustice.
The bias springs from an understandable reluctance to focus on the accountability of Phoebe Prince’s grieving parents, and the resulting tendency to concentrate all blame and outrage on the school (and the bullying students, nine of whom have been charged with criminal acts in connection with Prince’s suicide). This is the Golden Rule in action: everyone knows how horrible the parents must feel in such a tragedy, how they must be struggling to cope with their own regrets and feelings of guilt while mourning their child. The last thing any of us would want, if we had to endure such a tragedy, would be to find ourselves as the object of media or public criticism for the warning signs we overlooked, or the steps we failed to take.However, if Phoebe’s death is to become a catalyst for public and media scrutiny of the social problem of teen bullying, the parents’ accountability must be as much a part of the discussion as any other factor–perhaps more.
There is little that a school can (or should) do to control the conduct of its students after classes end, and it is unfair to require that a school ‘s teachers and administrators be responsible for acquiring the same level of intimate knowledge about their students’ vulnerabilities and emotional states as the students’ own parents. A new student being treated badly in her new school is not a new phenomenon; indeed, the scenario that led to Prince’s suicide was remarkably similar to the plot of the hit movie “Mean Girls,” which, after all, was a comedy. It is proper and reasonable that a school’s staff should be reluctant to inject itself into the personal relationships among its charges, and it is unreasonable to expect a school to get involved in such matters as what students post about each other on social networking sites.
If Phoebe Prince’s family knew how bad the bullying of their daughter had become at South Hadley, and how seriously it was affecting their daughter’s emotional state, they should have removed her from the school. Presumably they didn’t know, or they would have taken her out. If they didn’t know, it is wrong for them or anyone else to insist that school administrators, who had comparatively limited contact with Phoebe, should have divined that her problems were significantly worse that what thousands of other students handle on their own.
All the facts are not in, but the presumed hierarchy of responsibility for this tragedy should be:
1) the bullying students,
2) their parents,
3) Phoebe’s parents,
and only then the school’s teachers and administrators. Here, however, the instinct to apply the Golden Rule leads to an unethical result. Because is easier, feels better and seems more caring to criticize an institution rather than the parents of a victim, the public’s focus is misdirected. This is not just unfair. It also risks reaching the wrong conclusions about how to best protect students from Phoebe Prince’s fate, and creating misguided policies as a result. Parents have a lot more power, and more responsibility, to protect their kids than the schools. The Golden Rule should not stop us from acknowledging that.