by Sandra Parshall
It’s the saddest kind of story: a 15-year-old girl driven to suicide by relentless harassment from other teens.
Phoebe Prince, a pretty new student from Ireland, was tormented for months by classmates at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. The other kids sent her threatening text messages, knocked her books out of her hands, threw things at her, called her a slut and a whore on Twitter, Craigslist, Facebook, and Formspring.
The explanation for all this is baffling. Apparently she briefly dated a popular football player, and for some reason–maybe it makes sense in a twisted adolescent version of logic–that turned the whole school against her.
On January 14, after enduring weeks of bullying with no adult coming to her aid, Phoebe hanged herself. After her death, her tormentors posted nasty comments about her on a Facebook memorial page.
Nine teenagers were arrested in late March, only after a community uproar forced an official investigation. Two boys, ages 17 and 18, were charged with statutory rape, but seven of the accused are girls. Charges include criminal harassment, stalking, and civil rights violations. One girl was charged with assault for throwing a can of Red Bull at the victim.
This isn’t the first incident of teenage girls targeting a schoolmate and tormenting her emotionally until she kills herself, and it won’t be the last. Every day, in schools and neighborhoods, similar situations play out. Most such bullying doesn’t result in suicide, but it can destroy the victim’s life just the same.
Many adults don't want to admit that girls are capable of such behavior. After all, boys and men are indisputably more physically aggressive than the so-called gentler sex. Almost 90% of murders in the U.S. are committed by males. Road ragers are usually male. Researchers have discovered that males even have more violent dreams than females do. While females are capable of violence, they usually favor a form of bullying that doesn’t depend on size and physical strength. What teenage girls excel at is the social and psychological destruction of their victims. Gossip, rumors, shunning, the silent treatment, malevolent stares. Anybody who was ever an adolescent girl knows exactly what I’m talking about. Boys do the same things, but bullying by boys is more likely to turn physical–and adults are more likely to intervene. Girls can drive someone to suicide and still claim innocence because they never physically touched their victim.
Certainly the majority of teens are good kids–the kind who hold candlelight vigils after girls like Phoebe Prince kill themselves. But it only takes one girl with a sadistic streak and a strong personality to pull weaker ones into her orbit and turn them into a hunting pack out for blood.
So who's to blame for what Phoebe Prince endured?
Parents are often the last people to learn what their kids have been up to, and when children are accused of criminal or bullying behavior, many parents' automatic reaction is to deny the possibility. Mothers and fathers may be more interested in getting their kids off the hook than in facing what they've done and acknowledging that they, the parents, might share some of the blame.
Online networking sites provided public bulletin boards where Phoebe Prince's tormentors could slander her relentlessly, but Facebook, Craigslist, and other sites have refused to cooperate with the investigation and admit no culpability in her suicide.
The prosecutor learned that “numerous” employees at South Hadley High School were aware of what was happening to Phoebe Prince, and some witnessed the abuse, yet no one did anything to stop it. The prosecutor says the school staff’s failure to protect the girl was not criminal and they will not face charges. If the staff had seen evidence that the girl was being sexually molested or physically battered by an adult, and didn't even report it, would the prosecutor be giving them a pass now? School personnel are directly responsible for the safety of students. If they could look on silently while a girl was bullied to death, how can any child be safe in their care?
The real culprits, though, are the teenagers who devoted so many hours and so much energy to making one girl's life miserable--and didn't stop even after they'd driven her to suicide. It's about time we started treating this kind of behavior as the crime it is.