Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bullies and School Officials Beware: We're Watching

by Stacy Dittrich

It’s a story that sounds like it’s right out of a Lifetime Movie of the Week (undoubtedly, it will be). Pretty Irish girl immigrates to a small Massachusetts town. Pretty Irish girl catches the eye of the popular football player and succumbs to his charms — they have sex. The other girls in the school grow quite jealous of the pretty Irish girl and begin to bully her in a relentless and utterly disturbing manner as school officials sit by and do nothing. Pretty Irish girl commits suicide. She was only 15.

But this horrific and absolutely outrageous story is anything but a Lifetime movie. It's a growing trend that occurs daily across our nation’s schools: Bullying. Some refer to it as the “Mean Girls Syndrome” or “Clique Attacks,” but it has gotten completely out of control. It's long past time it gets recognition. Finally, it's getting the attention, but at the cost of young girl’s life.
Fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince (above left) left a picturesque, seaside village in County Clare, Ireland to come to America. Her family had hopes of a better life. The brunette beauty could now experience the real life of an American teenager -- and then some. Somewhat of a novelty at her school, Phoebe attracted the most popular boys. As a young girl in a new and strange environment, Phoebe undoubtedly felt like a princess as an attractive football player courted her. Unfortunately, Phoebe engaged in sex with this boy, and another popular, strapping young buck.

What followed is a text-book case of unrelenting stalking, harassment, and assault, and a group of school officials who turned their backs. The boys began bragging about having sex with Phoebe. This, of course, gave the group of Mean Girls ammunition to continue their pursuit of her. Each day, the harassment grew worse. As Phoebe walked down the hallways from class to class, they knocked her schoolbooks out of her arms onto the floor, then kicked away. They would shout names at her like “Irish slut” and “whore.” She was constantly subjected to items being thrown at her. One girl drove by Phoebe and pelted her with a full can of Red Bull.

Phoebe’s parents continuously asked school officials at South Hadley High School to intervene. Clearly, their pleas fell on deaf ears. On January 14, 2010, Phoebe had a particularly brutal day at her new school. Avoiding the lunch room, she went to the library to be alone and concentrate on her studies. The bullies followed her into the library and unleashed a verbal tirade of degrading names and physical threats. Astonishingly, a teacher sat quietly nearby, witnessed the entire incident -- and never said a word. After school, Phoebe went home and promptly hung herself in the stairwell of her home. Furthermore, what brought this sickening story to the forefront was that after news of her death spread throughout the community, those bullies had the audacity to go on Phoebe’s Facebook page and continue their verbal tirades against her. Phoebe Prince couldn’t escape the bullies even in death.

The community was outraged. As the case made its way onto the national news wire, pundits debated whether or not anyone should be held responsible. I happened to come across one talking head who ignorantly stated: “So she was called a few names and pushed a little! She obviously had other problems to go so far as to commit suicide.” I seethed with anger at this. I wanted to look him(Juan Williams) in the face and ask if he had ever lived his life as a 15-year old girl. I wanted to know if he had ever known the emotions and the constant depression a girl that age can go through if she didn’t fit in with the cool kids.

I experienced a year of pure hell with my own daughter when she was only 11-years-old. Each day in her 5th grade class, she was subjected to name-calling and shoving in the bathroom. It got so bad that every day she left for school, my stomach was in knots. When she got off the bus crying, I wanted to drive to the school and scream. I felt completely helpless. I can’t even begin to imagine the anger and anguish the parents of Phoebe Prince are going through. With my daughter, I was in the principal’s office every week demanding that he take care of the problem. If I heard, “Well, you know how girls can be … they’ll work it out,” I thought I would come unglued. Even after I explained that it is the school’s responsibility to protect my child for six hours each day, the school did nothing.

Finally, I simply called the school and told them she would not be attending until they fixed the problem. And that they better get her assignments ready so she doesn’t fall behind. It was only after I threw in the towel and said I was going to the police department did any action ensue. It was unbelievable. It was a gamble on my part since, I was fairly certain the police would take no action against any 11-year olds unless there was a genuine assault.
I heard similar stories within my community, including one mother who literally kept her daughter home for a year due to lack of enforcement by school officials. This is everywhere. What’s even more shocking is the parents of the bullies refuse to see their children for what they are. In the case of Phoebe Prince, the mother of one of the girls criminally charged, Sharon Chanon Velazquez, 16, publicly defends her with sheer ignorance. She blames Phoebe Prince.

“Sharon exchanged a couple words with her, that’s all,” Angeles Chanon told the Boston Herald. “Phoebe was calling her names, too. They’re teenagers. They call each other names.”

I commend the district attorney’s office for criminally charging the group with charges ranging from statutory rape, assault, and harassment to civil rights violations. However, they completely wimped out when it came to holding school officials criminally liable. They said their failure to act was concerning, but not criminal. Really? The school officials hold an enormous amount of culpability as far as knowingly failing to act, or being negligent to say the least.

Between 1999 and 2007 the number of students being home-schooled in the U.S. nearly tripled and is growing at a rate of 5-12% per year, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. What used to be known as a somewhat freakish practice has gone mainstream. The socioeconomic groups of home-schooled children have leveled. There are children of doctors, lawyers, and judges as well as of lower class households being home schooled. What has become the number one reason for the rise? Bullying. Females being home-schooled almost double the number of males.

Needless to say, it is time that school officials are held accountable. By law, we are required to put our children in their care. Why doesn’t the law protect our children while they are there?


Anonymous said...

Great article. My girl is going through something similar to what you went through and she is only in 3rd grade. And I hear the same things, they are girls, they will work it out. Yeah when my 8 year old is having stomach problems and is close to an ulcer I think that we are past letting them work it out on their own.

Anonymous said...

If things continue as they are, the attacking cliques will probably become more calculating: "Let's do this. We think she will probably commit suicide. But let's lay off that other one, 'cause she'll probably show up heavily armed and fill us all with lead."

This is also school violence. But it's kind of the flip-side. Speaking as one who was bullied -- but just by one guy -- it just hurts me how often kids turn their anger on themselves. No, they shouldn't kill their classmates either. But obviously Phoebe's callous classmates don't give a cr@p, and her family is now decimated. What horrible, horrible little people. I want their names so that I can hire them all for exactly *nothing*. *Ever*.

How do we instill in our kids that living well is the best revenge? A pragmatic 'step one' might be to simply remove them from the situation immediately. The teen years are very few; it will probably take 20 years to fix this in the school systems -- *if* those in power start now. They won't.

Homeschooling is on the rise, because it's every man for himself. I worry about this country.

Anonymous said...

I dont think the Stat rape charges are going to go through. MA law would apply if she was under 14 and there was more than a 5 year age difference. Being seduced is not being forcibly raped. However I hope all the other charges stick.

Anonymous said...

I don't have daughters so I am stunned to read accounts such as these. What is going on in our school system? What is going on with us mistreating each other? Thank you for informing me of these tragic events. I am so proud of you for taking a stand for your daughter. If you don't defend her, who will?

cheryl said...

I feel terrible for Phoebe and her family. Who goes off to High School, or sends their child off to school thinking of suicide as a side effect?

I was bullied unmercifully back in the 1970's. I was told by my parents and advisors that I should just ignore the bullies and they would stop. If I were the better person, I would be somehow triumphant over the bullies. In the meantime, the bullying girls were winning "Homecoming Queen" and "Class President" awards. I gave up. I wished I was dead every day of my High School life.

I don't know what it is that drives some girls to zero in on others. The closest thing I saw to what happened to me was a documentary about apes. The dominant female apes went after a newcomer, made her life hellish for a couple of years.

After seeing that documentary, I could actually laugh at the girls who made my life so awful every day. I imagined them as the apes in the show. They acted just like them!