Accountability, the Phoebe Prince Suicide, and the Golden Rule’s Limitations

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.

35 thoughts on “Accountability, the Phoebe Prince Suicide, and the Golden Rule’s Limitations

  1. A well written piece, but I don’t totally agree. South Hadley is not some large urban school system, but a small, upper middle class, white suburban high school. Phoebe was not just a “new girl”, she was a child from another country. Just how much do you know about life in the Irish school system? It seems to me a well financed system like Hadley could have done a bit more to help this child from Ireland adapt to a whole new culture. As for parents, Phoebe had a parent, father was still in Ireland.
    Now lets stop kidding ourselves, here is the real issue. Two older, American boys, one of them the captain of the football team thought it was O.K. to seduce and have sex with a 14 year old minor. Since both were soon to be part of the proud graduation class of 2010, it seems that South Hadley did a poor job of teaching them to be decent people. Or was that Phoebe’s fault?

    • Don’t you think there’s a big difference between 20-20 hindsight and legitimate accountability? Prosecuting senior for having sex with Freshmen is the ultimate Trojan charge: if there had not been a suicide or a bullying/harassment involved, this would never have been an issue (whether it should be or not is s different question.). The authorities know there isn’t enough to prosecute these guys for what is really causing all the controversy, so they are using another charge to deliver punishment for an act that isn’t sufficiently criminalized. I don’t much care for that kind of prosecuting.

      Nor do I think it’s fair to require schools to take on extra responsibilities for every student with a special problem. Again, if the parents felt she needed extra help, it was their job, not the school’s, to see she got it.

      Do you feel the school should have added accountability because Phoebe’s father wasn’t around? That’s not the school’s job either, to fill in for absent parents. There is no requirement, you know, that someone (other than the harassers) was at fault. I don’t blame the parents; these things are hard to see coming. Still, the parents are trying to make the school a scapegoat for not stopping what they had a better chance of stopping, and greater obligation as well. That’s just wrong.

      • Jack I think you would look at this diffrently if it was your 14 teen year old daughter and a 18 teen year old guy. The worst of it is that this guy after having sex with her is one of her taunters. Thank god for a strong DA.
        Jon Osborn

        • Of course I would, and I would be biased. The biased party is incapable of being objective. I’m not saying it is wrong to be biased; it is unavoidable in situations like this, involving people you love. But bias does not lead to fairness or justice. If a crime the DA routinely ignores and treats as a non-crime is being charged because nothing else will stick, that’s unethical. If the law doesn’t punish the kid for what he actually did, then there may need to be new laws. I think statutory rape between school mates—unless there’s a 21-year-old senior hanging around—is a lousy charge.

          • I disagree. I think if a young girl can testify that she feels that she was manipulated or coerced, I think there is a sufficient age gap that would psychologically put the younger party at a disadvantage. The entire point of statutory rape laws is because there is a phenomenon that can occur when one party is older, more experienced, and has more social status then another, and when the less experience less advantaged individual in a child, of early-teen stature, that is a position lacking in advantage enough to qualify as coercive on the part of the advantaged.

      • While I agree that it is the responsibility of parents to teach their children morals, respect, dignity, honesty and integrity, I don’t think that makes the community exempt from their responsibility to our children either. Schools are constantly emphasizing all kinds of moral and behavioral expectations- they can’t have those expectations if they are not willing to offer guidance and take responsibility. The school holds children accountable for honesty, integrity, responsibility, and dignity. There are dress-codes, there are behavioral agreements. A child can be penalized at school for assaulting another student, swearing, lying, skipping class, vandalizing school property, smoking, disrespecting teacher, not cleaning up after themselves, and coming to school unprepared. If what you are saying is true, than should penalizing and disciplining students for ALL of these issues be the parent’s responsibility, and NOT the school’s?

        I think that is unrealistic and will not benefit children or society. I think that is only natural in this culture that school take some responsibility for the behavior of children, and that includes bullying. There are class-room and school management strategies that can help prevent these things, strategies that are simple. In the same way that the older boys should be punished because they had an unfair advantage over the younger girl, I think that the school has a similar advantage. Educators are mentors and role-models; teachers, principles, coaches, crossing guards, nurses, secretaries, counselors, everyone is a mentor, everyone is a role model. If that were not so then why is it such a scandal when a teacher drinks alcohol at a party or has extra marital affairs, or has relationships out of wedlock? But it is so. Because we know this. This whole excuse of, teacher’s can’t be held responsible outside of class time, is ridiculous. There are elements of the problem that one can observe during school time, and until those kids leave the immediate area surrounding the school they are the responsibility of the teachers. The teachers take oaths and part of their sworn responsibility is known as “En Loco Parentis” in the place of the parents. When students are in school it is the role of the teacher to act as the guardian of the students. Students need to be able to feel safe at school. This poor little girl obviously did not feel safe at school, not for one second more.

        • The simple answer is that I do not trust teachers and adminsitrators to make these judgments. If I send a child to public school, I have no choice—while the child is in school. When the child is not, however, they have neither the right nor the presumed competence to interfere with my child’s life and choices. They have an obligatioin to alert parents to a problem, and parents can ask schools to assist regarding in-school conduct.

          Teachers are role models because of their place in a student’s life, not because they have earned that status. When they fail, as when they engage in misconduct, they can disqualify themselves. The fact that they are role models by circumstance does not mean that I should presume they have wisdom, intelligence or expertise–they aren’t MY role models.

          Their authority stops at the school boundaries. And it should.

  2. This article is well-written; however, I take issue with some of the arguments. Not all the bullying took place outside of school. The adults at the school are theoretically responsible for ensuring the safety of the students under their care, and, I would argue, that doesn’t just include physical safety.

    How is a child, for that is what Phoebe was, supposed to handle daily assaults upon his or her character? How many adults could endure a workplace where coworkers heaped the adult equivalents on them without going to the boss and expecting the behavior to stop? Adults often have an HR department and governmental agencies they can turn to–what do kids have if the adults in charge choose to do nothing?

    And, why should her parents have had to move her to another school, where she would once again have been the new student, having to make new friends again? Is she the one who did something wrong? Bullies are experts at picking out kids who are different, who suffer low esteem, who have no friends, who are not likely to have the resources to fight back. The bullying at her school isn’t likely to have boosted her self-esteem such that she would be more confident entering a new school. Could her parents just snap their fingers and get some friends for her, or boost her self-esteem in the few hours they saw her every day(as opposed to the 7 or 8 hours every day that she spent in school with her tormenters), change her accent, make her less different? All these things take time, whereas the destruction of someone’s self-worth takes very little time. Even if she had come into school with good self-esteem, teens are wired to want the good opinion of their peers, so if they’re constantly assailed every day, how can that not affect them.

    Also, remember that some of the students accused of bullying her were also some of the same students that have been accused of bullying other kids. Shouldn’t the adults at the school, allegedly being warned more than once about these students by other parents, have been on the watch for their behavior? Once the behavior was confirmed, as allegedly it was (some teachers witnessed these behaviors), the principal should have called in the parents of the bullies and told them that if their children’s behavior did not change, their children would be excluded from the school? That is part of the school’s responsibility. Most teachers and principals are not sure what to do, but presumably, that’s why the school had the expert come in to teach them. But then they didn’t follow their own policies and procedures, and that’s inexcusable.

    • I accept your analysis, except that it still is guided by hindsight. If Phoebe were getting beaten up at school, I think the school would have known, acted, and perhaps her parents might have moved her. Only recently has teasing, social abuse and the like been categorized as “bullying,” and while it is obviously just as harmful, the definitions aren’t as clear. Episodes like this one usually have an individual instigator; we can never know if there would have been the same kind of thing at another school. I would sure try that option (I hope I would, at least), as a parent, if the bullying was this serious.

      • Before this school year, had I not experienced first-hand as a parent what Phoebe’s mother must have experienced prior to her death, I would have agreed with you. However, teasing and social abuse often precede physical abuse if it goes on unchecked. My son is in the first grade and has been bullied since the beginning of the school year. It started with 2 kids teasing and making fun of him (he is one of 2 new kids in a class of 30). Now it includes physical abuse, and the core group has grown from 2 kids to 6 kids with as many as 9 other kids in the class participating. They knock him down at recess, twist his arms, block him in the classroom from turning in his homework and recently have even knocked him down in the classroom in front of the teacher. I have talked to the teachers and the principal, but they say they don’t see it (I have volunteered in the classroom and have seen it, other parents have seen it) and so say there’s nothing to stop (although they did see the classroom knockdown, but there was no immediate consequence to the perpetrator, so my son and the other children think that the boy was not punished). People whom I have told about what goes on here are aghast that this goes on unchecked. Unfortunately, the anecdotal evidence shows that this kind of thing goes on in many schools.

        For us, pulling our son out of this school (private school) is not so easy because the local public schools are so crowded that there’s no room for him in our neighborhood school–he would be shipped off to the poorest-performing, roughest school in the district. Had I realized earlier that the school would have been so inactive in addressing this problem, we would have pulled him out of this school at the end of the last semester and sent him to the only public school open to us, with the hope that it wouldn’t be as rough as his current one. We’ve agonized over pulling him this semester but don’t want to have to put him through being the new kid again for the 1 1/2 months of the year that’s left. We don’t know if that was the case for Phoebe’s mother, but often, it’s not so easy to transfer schools as one would hope.

        We as parents are legally required to send our children to school (or homeschool them, but this is not an option for everyone, and it takes some preparation and planning to do so) and so have to rely on school authorities to keep our children safe. I’m sure Phoebe’s mother is second-guessing herself and I feel for her.

        Maybe a lesson we can all take from this horrible situation is that we as parents need to talk to our children more explicitly about how to befriend the friendless and give them the tools to stand up for those being harmed. Thank you for leading such a dignified, open, and sensitive discussion of this story.

        • I do not believe that it is possible for teachers to control this problem until it becomes really egregious…particularly social, verbal, psychological bullying. If the problem arose for my child, and it might yet, I would a) contact the parents of the children doing the bullying b) swear out complaints if I had to 3) visit the school and tell them that I would hold them personally responsible for the next time my son was abused in any way, and would personally complain to, in order, the school board, the local press, the police and the mayor’s office. The schools, sadly, are staffed by too many sad, over-worked, risk-averse burn-out cases. I entrust my child to them, but I don’t TRUST my child with them. Leaving it to then to address this…how? with what?—is futile, and, in the end, negligent.

          Would you pull your child out if you thought he was a suicide risk? Of course you would.

  3. Who wrote this article?
    Your comment “school’s staff should be reluctant to inject itself into the personal relationships of its charges” is ignorant. You, and the school staff, are basically pulling a Seargent Schultz, ‘I see nothing’, to avoid taking responsibility for maintaining a safe working environment on school property. Must we inact OSHA governance to have simple rules of civil behaviour in the classroom? Who knows, maybe its time!
    Your hiearchy of responsibility is incorrect, number #1 on the list is the school staff/administration. Allowing the inmates to rule the insane asylum indicates a total lack of control. Resultant anarchy should be forseen. Especially with a 1 to 14 teacher to student ratio.
    Additionally, blaming the immigrant parents for failing their daughter is rather tacky. Maybe they didn’t understand the mechanics of removing their daughter from the school.
    I might agree with portions of your article, except that this situation, along with apparently many others, was continuous, ongoing, and willfully malicious while on school property. If the reverse situation had applied, with the so called ‘Mean Girls’ abusing the teachers/administrators, would the resultant action, or inaction in this case, have been the same? Of course not. The police would’ve been called in. Why the disparity? Does this mean its okay to abuse kids like that, but not adults?
    Maybe its time to leave a few children left behind if they can’t learn simple interaction techniques. In the work force they would’ve been terminated.

    • Who wrote this article?
      I did. Nice way to start.
      Your comment “school’s staff should be reluctant to inject itself into the personal relationships of its charges” is ignorant.
      Really. And how would you do that, exactly? Tell them to be nicer? Shunning, sneering, bumps in the hall, side comments, jokes, graffiti—go ahaed, tell me how you stop that, especially when it’s going on all over the school, with some students brushing it off. How do you control what a kid sees or gets at home on his or her computer?

      You, and the school staff, are basically pulling a Seargent Schultz, ‘I see nothing’, to avoid taking responsibility for maintaining a safe working environment on school property.

      Come on. How does a school monitor conduct short of threats and physical contact? You’re just settling on the school as an easy target. Schools can’t control this. If the kids are not socialized at home and are vicious, all schools can do is punish them and make them take out their anger on the original target.

      Must we enact OSHA governance to have simple rules of civil behaviour in the classroom? Who knows, maybe its time!
      Again: what would such regulations be? How would you enforce them? What you would have is school systems put out of business by law suits.

      Your hiearchy of responsibility is incorrect, number #1 on the list is the school staff/administration.
      No. The kids doing the bullying are the ones responsible…because they are doing the bullying.

      Allowing the inmates to rule the insane asylum indicates a total lack of control. Resultant anarchy should be forseen. Especially with a 1 to 14 teacher to student ratio.

      I don’t understand that statement.

      Additionally, blaming the immigrant parents for failing their daughter is rather tacky. Maybe they didn’t understand the mechanics of removing their daughter from the school.

      It’s not tacky. WHY they didn’t take action is a different issue from the fact that they should have taken action. And what “mechanics”, please? My daughter is at risk at a school, I DRIVE OVER AND TAKE HER HOME, and keep her there as long as she’s at risk.

      I might agree with portions of your article, except that this situation, along with apparently many others, was continuous, ongoing, and willfully malicious while on school property. If the reverse situation had applied, with the so called ‘Mean Girls’ abusing the teachers/administrators, would the resultant action, or inaction in this case, have been the same? Of course not. The police would’ve been called in. Why the disparity?

      What? The teachers would have known if THEY were the ones being abused. That’s difference enough for me.

      Maybe its time to leave a few children left behind if they can’t learn simple interaction techniques. In the work force they would’ve been terminated.

      Now you’re talking!

      • I know you will hate me for this Jack, but perhaps the school needs to focus some attention to a “helpline”. Unfortunately, I don’t know what the legal ramifications are if there is actionable information to investigate and they fail to do so, but what I’m intending to suggest is a helpline for administrators not to “investigate” but to “refocus their attentions”. I would liken it to the professional sports stadiums where fans can “tattle text” on nearby obnoxious fans.

        Two points that I think might be worth exploring:

        1) How is Phoebe Prince’s situation much different from Klebold and Harris? Bullies, death, and public outrage. I would suspect that Phoebe’s bullies are lucky that she didn’t go murder-suicide and limited her actions to suicide. For that, Phoebe might have some semblance of dignity in her after-life.

        2) I’ve known some troubled kids and I’ve seen what mentors can do for some of them. Role models to which they can aspire. I personally have a theory/hypothesis about role-models:

        “The age of role model one selects directly correlates to the life span of the admirer.”

        Without any role-models, I believe a situation like Phoebe’s is more common. I think those who choose role-models with a full life of accomplishment are at the least risk, because they are thinking about their own lifetime goals. I think someone like Phoebe could have used a good role-model to aspire and focus her life, and someone even just 2 or 3 years older than her would have been helpful to get her by and get her to the next stage of her life.

      • As a future educator of America, a mother, an older sister, and a God mother, I have to say I would be terrified to leave my child in a school with some one who thinks like you. My teachers at my daughter’s school assure me that she is in good hands, that they are paying attention to the dynamics between students. If abuse and harassment in a high school setting is taking place in the halls between classes, put a staff member in every hall way. If it is taking place in bathrooms, have a staff member checking bathrooms during every class transition, if it’s taking place on the fields after school, put staff on every field after school. If it’s taking place in the lunch room or in the courtyard at lunch time, make sure you have enough monitors available. Additionally, persons monitoring should be practicing good manners, they should be personable, friendly, and some what social so that they are easy to approach with problems and have a greater awareness of interpersonal dynamics between students.
        Do I think we should pay our teachers more for this responsibility? Absolutely.
        Do I think we should give our schools more money for managing these risks?
        Without a doubt.
        Are our children our future as a nation?
        I have to say it seems that you are likely in favor of privatized education, education that would be unavailable for the poor. I suppose you think that people who can’t afford children should be forbidden to have them, and that raising children should require licensing? You know what, kids are people too. I agree that the bullies are near the top of the list of responsibility, but I think the first parties to punish them should have been the school. I think the school should have reported them to the police, in addition to suspending them. The school is a community institution, like the police department, the fire department, or the hospital. They have more integrity in reporting such a crime than parents do, because ideally are equally invested in both parties. They are also there to attest to the fact that such problems are obstacles to the education process.
        If you disagree with the public system itself, I suggest you stay out of it. Most teachers who work for public school believe in the public model, and they believe in the community model, it takes a village to raise a child.

        • Back off. The essay was about the fact that the parents, not the school, have PRIMARY responsibility for addressing conduct problems, and that is true. I did not say that teachers shouldn’t be alert to mistreatment of students—obviously they should, and obviously they are obligated to alert the parents.

          Back off 2: my comments are equally applicable to private and public schools. Don’t put words, especially stupid words, in my mouth.
          Back off 3: Where do you think you get the justification to write “I suppose you think that people who can’t afford children should be forbidden to have them, and that raising children should require licensing?”. You can figure out my views on parenting elsewhere on the blog, and that obviously isn’t it. But parents are accountable for their children, and no school has the right to interpose its values for mine.

  4. I am a mother of a son who was harrassed and bullied and I do not agree with this article at all. The community is responsible. In this case it was the school community, which included the children, the parents and the school. My son was harrassed and bullied while at school and after school. We tried to work with them and agreed not to file a formal complaint after a series of missteps. They did not follow through with the “plan” they had set up. I became very concerned about my son’s mental health status and moved him to another district. Bullying, violence and misbehavior is epidemic in American public schools. My son was in a parochial school prior to this where this type of behavior was simply not tolerated. I have written a complete piece of our experiences and what conclusions we have reached as a family. Public schools use “suspension” as their means of discipline. This does not work…in fact my son at age 11 was trying to get suspended so he did not have to face the bullies at school or while riding the bus. I am shortening this story for brevity…but after months…of dealing with this…we made a “safety plan”, he came back into the school and the bullying started again…the plan was never implemented. Afterwards some of the kids followed him onto Facebook and I called the district and finally since I was no longer in the district got the parents phone numbers. I spoke to them directly…(which is what would happen in his parochial school…) the parents of course were appalled…(this was just one of the boys), the activity stopped immediately. The issue of bullying, violence and disruption in schools is an issue of “management” We are very embarrassed as Irish Catholic (lapsed) Americans that management of public school is is frankly so poor. The teachers and staff are not really empowered to do anything and sometimes frankly they turn a blind eye to bullying. I personally liken this type of thing to workplace law, or public accomodation and I hope the Prince family sues the heck out of everyone…until we start to get a consensus about how to solve school violence and bullying in America. Phoebe turned her angst inward…many students turn their angst outward and harm innocent people, in this case Phoebe was the innocent. Can you imagine what a culture shock it was to come to America? My son is now 13, and training and eating his grits and wheaties…he has learned to be impolite and basically say “fuck you” back. If someone puts their hands on him…he is no longer counseled to talk to an adult…but to fight back until that person does not get back up. Is this a good thing? No. But he is no longer bullied and we are tired as parents of the ineptitude. He had a confidence problem…now he is in a school where the kids are nicer. By the way, it is a school in a disadvantaged area like his parochial school was. We found the white kids and the kids who had money were the worst…if we were to face a situation like that again…we would get uppity alot sooner…because the schools simply do not know how to bring parents and kids together…which is what they should do to fix the problem. It is WE the people that need to fix this. Moreover, bullying at school is very similar to domestic violence. By the time a victim is voicing they need help…the situation has already gotten bad. Generally victims especially children suffer in silence. How come educators and administrators supposedly in the “people management” business do not know this? I have been totally unimpressed with the level of awareness and education in the public schools we have been in. The teachers blame the parents, the parents blame the teachers and the teachers union. The blame game solves nothing so we look for lawsuits and litigation to solve it. Wake Up America…ABC stands for absence of common sense. Phoebe died…because we suck.

    • Thanks for this. I certainly sounds to me like you have been impressively proactive. Bringing the parents together is obviously the best course, and the school should be the party to do it. But what triggers that, in a case like Phoebe’s? In most cases, I’d say the parents of the bullied child would have to request/demand a meeting. Your post should be sent to every school board in the county.

      I think your son will be just fine, thanks to terrific parenting. He is loved, and you have fought for him. My own father was beaten up every other day in his school career, and was a tough kid. He ended up as the most gentle, generous, devoted dad anyone could have, and a war hero….and he often reflected on his single mother’s fierce defenses of him as a child as the most important factor in his life. What doesn’t destroy us really does make us stronger, but we need help to make sure it doesn’t destroy us, as bullying did Phoebe.

  5. I think that’s a terrific observation, although I do hate you for not letting me make it first. The early reports about Diebold and Harris apparently over-stated the bullying angle, so they might not be the ideal analogies. Still, a lot of the problem seems (seems, because right now everyone is claiming different things) to be that Phoebe may never have directly complained about exactly what was happening to her to anyone but friends. I can understand why. It’s embarrassing, you think that action by outside authority will only make things worse, and you think you can handle it, or that it will eventually stop. A helpline is a great option, depending how it is set up. I wonder if any school has one.

  6. Our school district has an anonymous hot line that anyone can report any inappropriate behavior. All tips are followed up by a resource officer(cop).

    I am truly saddened by this. I do wonder why her mother did not get more involved. She must have seen something in Phoebe’s demeanor to suggest something was horribly wrong.

  7. It is the school’s responsibility to not allow bullying while they are in charge of our kids. We have to send them to school, we don’t have a choice so the least schools can do is ensure our kids are treated with respect while they are at school. Lets face it there is a huge bullying problem here in America, that’s why you have school shootings. Sometimes the victims hurt themselves and sometimes they hurt others. These kids are not just your average kids, they continued to insult Phoebe even after her death. They have no empathy for others, they have no respect for others, they think they are entitled to bully others especially if they aren’t like them (Thank God there are kids who are not like them). But it isn’t just kids who are like that, there are plenty of adults who are just the same and this is where they are learning it, from TV and everywhere you go there are rude arrogant people. You say teachers shouldn’t be held responsible. They allowed this bullying to go on for years, what kind of human being can do that? Or maybe they don’t have hearts either? One of the main things we keep hearing about serial killers is that they don’t have compassion for others, these kids don’t have compassion, the teachers didn’t have compassion and Mr. Jack Marshall doesn’t seem to have this essential human attribute either.

    • Mary: People can only be held responsible for what they can reasonably control. If teachers saw bullying in person, in their classes, the their responsibility is to stop it. How do they know, if they aren’t told by the student or parents, the xtent of the bullying? If many students are being bullied to various degrees, how do they know which students are at risk? A teacher may see 100 students in a day, and struggles to do his or her primary job. Two parents, 1-6 kids; one teacher, 100 kids: whose attention is more divided? You speak as if bullying was one single kind of conduct. It seems clear that it was mostly threats and verbal sbude that destroyed Phoebe—how do you control that, as a teacher? How do you control the internet?

      I have asked several teens here in Alexandria Virginia if they felt the school could do anything to stop bullying. All felt that the school’s intervention would only make the situation worse. It is not enough to say “the school should stop it.” Bullying doesn’t emanate from the schools, it comes from homes—and parents CAN stop it. It does no good to just vent emotionally—maybe it makes ytou feel better, which is something—and demand action without considering what that means.

      Teachers have compassion, as much as you. They are not mind-readers, however, and not miracle workers. Give them information and tools, and then they can accomplish things. Here, they had neither.

      You are wrong and unfair to insult me for raising a legitimate point. one reason bullying gets worse is the reflexive, compassionate instinct to blame easy targets rather than the where the problem lies. Compassion is a virtue, but not if you allow it to warp your logic. After all the media coverage of the Columbine shooting emphasized bullying and made the school the villain, for example, it slowly became clear that the shooters were seriously ill, damaged, subjected to unhealthy influences at home and did quite a bit of bullying themselves. But it wouldn’t have been “compassionate” to say so. The ethical course is to solve the problem, not to adopt politically correct nostrums.

  8. Another thing I want to say is that Phoebe didn’t commit suicide in Ireland even though she had the same mother there. Suddenly after only being in school in America for three months it now is the mother’s fault. Phoebe managed to survive the Irish school system for fourteen years. What about the little black boy who committed suicide, was it his mother’s fault too? His mother is such a nice human being she is now helping other kids in the same situation. Are you finding fault with her too? Obviously there must be something wrong with this incredible lady after all her eleven year old son committed suicide. It had to be her fault too if your theory is that the parents are to blame for their kids committing suicide due to being bullied in the school system.

    • Mary, you are just ranting. I did not say that Phoebe’s mother was “to blame” for the suicide.

      No one person or institution usually 100% responsible for any suicide. (Indeed, the person most responsible for a suicide is always the person who kills himself or herself. Or is that statement offensive to you too?) But the parents are the ones who have the most control (though it is often not enough) and who should know their children’s state of mind best. They are the ones who have to alert the schools, and work with them.

      I have a lot of experience with suicide: three members of my extended family have killed themselves. I knew them all very well. Your emotional response simply proves the thesis of my article. People won’t look where the problem lies, they’ll look where it’s nice, easy, and comfortable, while wearing compassion like a badge. And you know what? That gets more kids bullied and killed. You are, in other words, with the best and kindest of intentions, part of the problem.

      • 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 – This sure looks to me like you are placing some of the blame on the mother. This was cut and pasted by the way – your very words. 2) is somewhat right for at least one of the mothers, I don’t know what the other mothers are like.

        • You know, if you won’t read carefully what I say in replies to your comments you make it difficult to take your comments seriously. I am placing some of the responsibility on the mother. I did not say blame. Blame is not the same as responsibility. And I said that I was not absolving the school, only that parents have more influence and responsibility for their children’s welfare than the schools do. And that’s true.

  9. Jack, compassion isn’t worn like a badge, you either have it or you don’t. Also you asked kids if the schools should get involved, of course they’re going to say the school shouldn’t get involved. Half of them are probably bullies themselves. An interesting fact is that you have experienced suicide in your family and I have relatives who are teachers and head principals. I know how hard working teachers are and what they have to deal with, I also know that plenty of schools are doing the right thing where bullying is concerned but Phoebe’s school was not one of them.

  10. I can think of very few matters involving behavior that schools are primarily responsible for ahead of teachers. Please note that I only put schools fourth on the list of accountability; I didn’t absolve them. Putting them first, however, just avoids addressing the real problems.

  11. Jack you say blame is not the same as responsibility, well this is the definition of blame (blm)
    tr.v. blamed, blam·ing, blames
    1. To hold responsible.
    2. To find fault with; censure.
    3. To place responsibility for (something): blamed the crisis on poor planning.

    This is how you replied to Mark Norman’s email. Note how he used the word blame too. –

    Additionally, blaming the immigrant parents for failing their daughter is rather tacky. Maybe they didn’t understand the mechanics of removing their daughter from the school.

    It’s not tacky. WHY they didn’t take action is a different issue from the fact that they should have taken action. And what “mechanics”, please? My daughter is at risk at a school, I DRIVE OVER AND TAKE HER HOME, and keep her there as long as she’s at risk.

    • Then to be more specific: I am using the first definition, while I sense that most people are assuming that I mean the second. We can be responsible even for events substantially beyond our control. Parents are first in the line of responsibility for the well-being of their children. Clearly the harassing students and parents who raised them are first in line for accountability here. Here’s my question for you: do you think the parents had no responsibility for what happened to their daughter? No obligation to know that she was troubled, vulnerable, feeling desperate? No obligation to intervene with the school aggressively? If you think that, then I can understand the focus on the school. Do you really think that?

  12. Pingback: Ethics Dunce: Evan S. Cohen « Ethics Alarms

  13. people need to understand y bullying is not good there is a girl names Phoebe Prince and she killed her self because of people said to her the title says “Fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince was pretty, hopeful, and liked to goof around with friends. The story of how she killed her-self after being viciously tormented by her school mates has touched the lives of girls across the country. Now they’re taking a stand to talk about just how dangerous–and deadly–bullying can be.”

  14. People dont need to kill them selves because of what other people say about them to other people; she did not deserve to die— she was a young girl a-waiting her future….):

  15. I totally agree with this article. I am a middle school teacher who has intervened every year in incidents of bullying. I feel sick about this tragedy. This week I, again, intervened when a 7th grader told me she was being called a he/she and a lesbian by a group of girls. I alert administration, issue consequences, contact parents of bullies, do lessons on bullying with my classes, and spend my lunches with victims of bullies. I see each child, though, along with 150 of my other students for ONE hour a day. I am not a parent of the child so I do what I can within the limits of my job, and I overstep my boundaries frequently because I care so much about this issue. But parents have more power than me. They can threaten legal action against other parents for the child’s harassment, force lazy administrators to act, get appropriate counseling for the child, and in some cases PULL that child from the school. I feel as a teacher I see as much as I can, but I do not have as much power as a parent who intimately knows the moods of their child, has access to cell phone and internet to monitor cyber bullies, and is able, unlike me, to force my boss- the principal- to react with swift and heavy justice on perpetrators of bullying. I understand the intent of the writer of this article. Parents please pay attention to your child. Teachers do what they can, but see 120-180 teens a day at the middle school and high school level and it is IMPOSSIBLE to monitor the situation as closely as parents can.

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