Bullying tragedy was wakeup call

Sunday, Feb. 07


Even after 55 years, the neighborhood bully remains a too-vivid memory. I remember his name, what his house looked like, and how I would take several roundabout routes home from elementary school in my New York suburb, hoping to avoid him.

Inevitably, there were frightening, mostly non-violent confrontations. As a pint-sized third-grader, I felt especially vulnerable. The school, well-aware of his presence, did nothing. Neither did my dad, who insisted that I defend myself.

Ironically, several years later I was among a group of kids called into the principal's office as witnesses to a bullying incident involving a brainy sixth-grader. Neither I nor my friends had defended her or reported the incident. The principal gave us a well-deserved tongue-lashing. I wanted to apologize to the young lady, but failed to do so. I'm still haunted by shame over this.

Now comes a horrific story from nearby South Hadley about the Jan. 14 suicide by hanging of Phoebe Prince, 15, a high-school freshman recently arrived from Ireland. In case it's off your radar, here's what happened, based on published and broadcast reports.

Phoebe had been invited to the winter cotillion but took her life two days before the dance. The South Hadley police began an immediate investigation into incessant bullying by classmates.

School officials said the bullying, primarily via abusive text messages and Facebook postings, was based on "disagreements over teen romances."

"The real problem now is the texting stuff and the cyber-bullying," said Superintendent Gus Sayer. "Some kids can be very mean toward one another using that medium."

Writing to parents, the principal, Daniel Smith, stated: "School personnel immediately intervened, counseled and provided consequences as the situations required. It is what happened after those incidents were over that is cause for significant concern."

His letter described Phoebe, who had three sisters and a brother, as "smart, charming, and as is the case with many teenagers, complicated. We will never know the specific reasons why she chose to take her life."

According to a death notice in the Springfield Republican newspaper, the family had moved to western Massachusetts last year, in part, "so that Phoebe could experience America. Here she touched many lives with her Irish mannerisms and sense of humor."

An outcry from parents and residents led to the formation of an anti-bullying task force at the 700-student high school. At a Select Board meeting Tuesday night, more than 100 residents demanded immediate action.

The outrage stemmed from school officials' silence over disciplinary action taken against Phoebe's harassers. Police Chief David LaBrie said he couldn't discuss the ongoing criminal probe, but acknowledged cyber-bullying was continuing against other students in the town's four schools. He spoke of "children's pictures and addresses posted online with threatening messages."

"What sort of signal are we sending to our students if some of the bullies are still walking around acting proud?" demanded resident Kathleen M. Keane. "Whoever bullied her, or anyone else, should be held accountable."

Parents were rankled by word that Barbara Coloroso, a specialist on bullying, had visited the school district last fall to emphasize that bullies must be held publicly accountable, but no action was taken on her recommendations.

"They had the plan, and they sat on it," said Darby O'Brien. "And now we have kids in the high school who are afraid to speak up because the bullies are still there. Why should they speak up when they can see that nothing has been done to punish the bullies?"

Superintendent Sayer told the South Hadley School Committee Thursday night that about 30 students have been interviewed about Phoebe's death; long-term suspension or expulsion is likely for those found guilty in disciplinary hearings.

"The high school will not tolerate name-calling, slurs, taunting, threats or physical aggression. Similarly we will not tolerate any abuse of students who are disciplined because they have violated the bullying policy," he declared.

There will be more about bullying in this space next Sunday. Some Berkshire County schools have been attempting to deal with intimidation and harassment of students. As the parent of a very small first-grader, it's good to know that our town's elementary school PTO put bullying prevention on the agenda for its Tuesday evening meeting.

Zero-tolerance for bullying is a must. The South Hadley tragedy, an ongoing nightmare, serves as a call to action.


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