By Don Klein
When a teenage girl was found hanging in the stairwell of her New England home not too long ago it was not just the tragedy that all adolescent suicides are. It was a failure of the adults in her life to face up to their responsibilities, not to mention the fault of her malevolent adolescent counterparts.
Phoebe Prince, 15, may have been a victim of abusive peers in her high school but she died because the grownups in her life never stepped up to protect the child, as all children should be protected, from the hurtful behavior of ruthless school mates.
The abusive teenagers who drove the poor child to her end are shameful products of adolescent quirks driven by hormones raging through bodies placing them somewhere between child and grownup. But the question I ask is when will adults start acting as adults and accept their roles as guardians of youth?
Why didn’t teachers and school authorities act when they learned of, or witnessed, the harmful taunting and threats hurled at this student. Phoebe’s friends knew about it, her young provocateurs knew, the girl fled in tears to the school nurse, she knew, and her family knew. Teachers witnessed attacks on more than one occasion and Phoebe pleaded to administrators for help.
Yet no one did anything. No adult stood by her. Shame on them all.
When we send children to school they become temporary wards of educators, they become the responsibility of the teachers and school administrators. School officials are surrogate parents while the children are in their care whether they like the role or not. They are obligated to see no harm comes to them, they must care for their safety and good health. Most educators do.
If not, no parent would allow their child to go to school if they are on their own with no oversight by tending adults. Yet that seems to have been the failure in Phoebe’s case. No one took custody for her well being. No one nipped the abuse before it reached the fatal level.
Three 16-year-old girls are being held in this case for taunting and bullying young Phoebe, an immigrant girl from Ireland. The intimidation was gross and intense and drove the victim to despair. Why? Apparently it was that curious explosive energy that drives most teenagers – boy-girl relationships.
Prosecutors in Northwestern Massachusetts have charged the girls as youthful offenders with felonies including violation of civil rights and stalking, and have also accused them with similar crimes under juvenile laws. Three other students have been charged as adults, two of whom being accused of statutory rape.
Gus Sayer, the superintendent of schools including South Hadley High School, where the abuse took place, said he could not discuss some of the pertinent matters in the case because of "privacy rules." How many times have we heard that lame excuse to cover-up their own failings.
Privacy my foot. A young girl’s life is ended in suicide. Those feeble rules no longer exist.
Teenage bullying is a lot more dangerous than any adult would suspect. What if Phoebe had turned the tables on everyone and somehow got her hands on a gun. That is not very difficult in a country whose gun laws and virtually written by adherents of the National Rifle Association. What if she took that gun to school to even the score with her tormentors and in the process shot many uninvolved innocent kids and teachers.
That would get national attention and we would be asking why?
Don’t say that is far fetched because it already happened. Remember the Columbine High School mass murder in Colorado brought about by teenagers who felt abused and ostracized by their peers. It also happened elsewhere where kids attacked schoolmates and teachers with deadly weapons after feeling they were picked on incessantly.
Oddly enough there is only one group of adults who usually can spot these antisocial trends brewing in youngsters. They are teachers. They spend more time with the kids than their parents do. In many cases parents don’t have a clue about their children because most teenagers don’t confide in them.
The teachers at Columbine and other schools where youngsters resorted to shooting up the place and causing grievous human damage were, in essence, negligent in their duties by spotting disturbing trends among their students and not doing anything about it. That is the case at South Hadley High School.
There is no one who respects teachers more than I do because they are the ones who mold the future for us all. Their work is the most honorable you can imagine, but they have become aloof when it comes to dealing with the behavioral problems of students. The parents ignore them when they point out problems and the administration usually backs down and hides behind rules and regulations.
Without the support they deserve teachers often develop the attitude whereby they do just what the lessons require and leave issues like pupil interaction and deportment for others to solve. In the end it is really the parents who must change. They should support teachers and maybe then they will find dividends in the outreach of teachers towards troubled students.
The Associated Press reported that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick in a radio interview said that "adults did not seem to have acted like adults" in the case. He did not distinguish between school administrators or the parents of the teens charged.
How right he is. We cannot afford to ignore children as they continue to victimize each other.