Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Mean Girls

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.


Dru said...

What bothers me most about this incident is that teachers/adults were present and not one step forward to stop the bullying.

What does this say about our future generation?

Sheila Connolly said...

What is sad is that most adults, parents included, dismiss bullying by saying, oh, it's just part of growing up--deal with it. Obviously that doesn't always work.

And of course, there is a great divide between parents and their children, particularly in the teen years. Was it Deborah Tannen who described parents and children as two different species? Children feel they're betraying their peers (or their tribe) by "tattling."

Why are we surprised that children can be cruel? They enjoy the power of bullying, but they lack empathy--they just haven't lived long enough. Which is why responsible adults should step in.

Disclaimer: since I live in Massachusetts, this is all over the newscasts, every day.

Sandra Parshall said...

In addition to excusing bullying as part of growing up (what does that say about the way humans raise their offspring?), many adults think being bitchy is just part of being a girl. Boys hit -- and if they cause injury, they are reprimanded, at the very least. Girls bully other girls in much more insidious ways.

How many of you witnessed or suffered from bullying when you were in school? I saw it in every school I attended, and the girls were always the worst bullies.

Anonymous said...

I think this is so tragic. And as the mother of a daughter, I am well aware of how mean girls can be. Women too. Your title was Mean Girls and that movie showed some of this in a humorous way, but the problem is that it is all too common. The teenage years are hard enough anyway. I think that it is time that society face up to the fact that bullying does occur and indeed has always occurred. Some of the social networking opportunities have made things escalate and caused the victims even more public humiliation, in my opinion. It is time for adults who witness this sort of thing to have a zero-tolerance rule for it, just like drug use and other behaviors. Yes, it's part of growing up, but parents and other adults have got to take this kind of thing seriously.

Thanks for a good piece, Sandra.

chamealeo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fran said...

I experienced this kind of abuse/bullying when I was 12/13 for one and a half years almost every day. It was mostly verbal harassment (only once I got beaten up) but it can still brainwash you. However, a boy (not a girl) started it and soon an entire group (all boys) verbally harassed me when I had to pass by them.
Even after twenty years, it sometimes haunts me and I have problems passing a group of men or boys.
Usually when I told people about this they said 'yeah that happens a lot and I got bullied too...' So I stopped talking about it.
So, what I wanted to say is that not only girls are good in verbal/psychological abuse.

Karen Olson said...

I posted about the same subject over at First Offenders ( today. There have always been mean girls, and there always will be. Even if these kids are convicted, it won't make a difference.

Steve Liskow said...

When I was a teacher, I spent ten years working with the task force to help students who were "at risk," meaning helping kids deal with various crises including drugs or alcohol, divorce, a death in the family, or parental unemployment and loss of income.

Based on that experience, I have to say two things: first, this case is a terrible tragedy.

The second is that, given the social dynamic, I suspect that if school staff approached the kids who were doing the bullying, their parents would have defended them and raised hell about civil liberties being violated.

More often than not, the parents have a good idea of what is going on and either deny it or condone it. I don't remember dealing with any bullying, but I got used to having to deal with parents who refused to let us intervene on their child's behalf. Losing a court case would have hurt the system's image, so we often let things drop.

I wouldn't be surprised if that was the decision many people made privately in this case. It's terrible, but I don't know how to change it.

Melissa Eiselein said...

Some authorities will tell you that girls can be more vicious than boys. Boys fight and move on. Girls tend to hold grudges, which means the bullying escalates.

And anyone who thinks girls don't get violent is naive. I met a middle school principal who needed surgery to repair a severely broken arm she received while trying to break up a girl fight.

Our society is out of control. Parents are afraid to spank their children. Schools are afraid to punish children. Teachers are just plain afraid of their students. And, in some cases, the parents are just as bad as their out of control children.

susie kline said...

This is so sad! I love everyone's comments so far. I know at my son's school, where I had the privilege of subbing for a few years, I was constantly pointing out the bullying (to my own son and to other students) and was always pooh-poohed. The administration wanted nothing to do with it. I kept repeating that we've all seen the statistics on bullying and the life-long harm it causes, but no one cares.

I think the school administration should be wholly responsible for this tragedy. I can only hope that this girl's parents can at least file some sort of civil suit against all of them since criminal charges won't be coming. Maybe this is one time our litigious society will result in good!

signlady217 said...

This whole thing just breaks my heart and makes me cry. Her poor parents have to listen to all this, too. Same thing with the boy who was dosed with gasoline and set on fire (he survived, but emotionally, I wonder how he is?)

When you think about it, Hitler and the Nazis were just a big gang of bullies, too. People saw what was going on, but looked the other way for too long.

People do this and get away with it because they can. Makes me mad.

Sandra Parshall said...

By coincidence, the latest (May/June) issue of Scientific American Mind -- my favorite magazine -- is all about differences between the sexes, and one article deals with "relational" vs physical aggression. Fascinating stuff about what studies have uncovered. If you're a writer, this could be valuable in creating characters. You can read it at:

The gist is that females feel as much anger as males, but usually express it in non-physical ways, probably because of social conditioning and relative weakness. HOWEVER -- When it comes to physical aggression in man-woman relationships, women dish it out as often as they take it. Some studies actually show that women physically abuse men more often than the other way around. The big difference is that women throw things at, scratch, or slap men, while men use their fists or choke women. The result is that women suffer two-thirds of the injuries in domestic violence incidents.

Julia Buckley said...

I am a teacher, and I know that bullying goes on. I wouldn't necessarily agree that "society is out of control" except in the sense that society has always been out of control--or at least that's how it has felt to every generation when something terrible happens.

I have ZERO tolerance for bullying in my classroom, and I do watch for it. I don't even allow sarcastic glances or passive-aggressive sighs. Once, though, a major bullying event got past me (it was done subtly, but evilly) and the girl who was the victim (of other girls, Sandra) came to me to tell me how they were persecuting her: saying mean things, taking things out of her purse, calling her names.

I sent the girl out of the room on an errand to the counselor and yelled at the entire class. We were reading a book at the time (LORD OF THE FLIES) in which a boy is persecuted by other boys. All of the "bullies" claimed to feel sorry for this boy in class discussion. I asked them how they dared to feel sorry for this fictional character when they were just as cruel to a real person in real life.

When I drew the parallel and called them out, they were forced to see themselves in a new and ugly light. I filled in the counselor and asked her to talk with each bully and call each girl's parents. She told me later that the perpetrators ended up in tears. I said good.

From that point on I watched those girls like an eagle, and they knew that I had lost all respect for them, which, believe it or not, is also a powerful punishment.

HSS said...

By seeing the behaviour and not stopping it, adults become the bullies. Dismissing it, is condoning it. It gives the child bullies confidence. If one adult, just one had stopped these kids maybe that girl would be alive.

Sandra Parshall said...

Thank God for teachers like you, Julia. These brats need to have the error of their ways pointed out to them, and the innocent victims need protection.

What astounds me about the Phoebe Prince case is that they continued to post nasty comments about her online AFTER she killed herself! What does it take to satisfy them?

Norma said...

Julia is definitely one of the good guys!

This all reminds me of a case locally where two girls tricked the mother away from home, then came in and killed her daughter because she'd dated the boy who one of them was pregnant by. WHY do girls blame another girl when the guy is the one who asks them out? (The girls were too young to drive, so the boy dropped them off - which is another weird thing.)

Actually, both of my published short stories had abuse and death of children at their center. (They're on my website.)

And, I do agree that mean girls have been around for a long time. I remember when our high school had a row with a neighboring high school, and I was shocked that a girl I knew was a ringleader. Nobody got hurt, despite the ringleader, I'd say.

kathy d. said...

I just don't get it--why teachers, guidance counselors and principal didn't intervene here. Nor parents.

I echo the praise for Julia's handling of bullying as a teacher.

I saw a school psychologist on a CNN station who said that when parents were called to meet about their children's problems, they didn't show up. And when workshops were held on bulling, the parents didn't show up either.

Why don't school officials and parents deal with this?

A relative of mine saw her child--at 7--repeat taunting of an older sibling to her younger sister. The relative asked him if he was a follower or made his own decisions and if he had a conscience. She was not going to put up with that behavior.

Aren't parents supposed to bring up children with respect for other people, and with morals and ethics? And aren't school officials supposed to teach this, model it and deal with bullying and also show ethical behavior to ohers?

It really boggles my mind if this isn't done. I do not get it.

Hope Clark said...

I wish we had more teachers like you.

Et al
I know a bully and have confronted him, but they turn sneaky. What's worse is that they carry this into adulthood, making them the workplace individuals with passive agressive tendencies strong enough to wreck others' careers. In nine years as a personnel director, I saw it.

I don't think you can make bullying a crime until it crosses physical lines. Otherwise you wind up with people taking advantage of that law, misinterpreting too many behaviors as bullying. You'll wind up with sticking out a tongue in third grade as bullying, much like the zero tolerance for plastic cutlery in students' lunches. People want to fall back on laws in lieu of taking responsibility as adults. The school adults in this situation should be administratively disciplined - period. It may not be a crime, but it can be deemed irresponsible as a school official and placed on an employment record. The situation may follow them throughout their lives, but at least they'll have lives, unlike that poor girl and her parents.

Wes Rose said...

In addition to excusing bullying as part of growing up (what does that say about the way humans raise their offspring?), many adults think being bitchy is just part of being a girl. Boys hit -- and if they cause injury, they are reprimanded, at the very least. Girls bully other girls in much more insidious ways. How many of you witnessed or suffered from bullying when you were in school? I saw it in every school I attended, and the girls were always the worst bullies.