See Emily Bazelon's special report on the untold story of Phoebe Prince and her suicide.
Last September, South Hadley High School in Western Massachusetts hosted a workshop on bullying for parents and anyone else interested. Attendance was low. As the school year progressed, a ninth-grader who'd recently arrived from Ireland, Phoebe Prince, got caught in a torrent of mean-girl taunting. In school, girls who didn't like the way she was talking to their boyfriends called her a slut. Someone scribbled Prince out of a student-body photo hanging in a classroom, one student said. Outside school, her tormenters ganged up on her on Facebook, making the bullying incessant.
In January, Prince, who was 15, hanged herself. Both school officials and students connected her death to the bullying that preceded it, and the school committee meeting that followed her suicide was packed with 300 people. Many of them were parents, and some of them blamed the school. One father, whose daughter had also been bullied in ninth grade said, "This is not a new problem," according to the local paper.
That's why school administrators had convened the bullying workshop and asked anti-bullying expert Barbara Coloroso to talk to parents. The school had been looking at the problem of bullying for two years, they said, and had been about to convene a task force when Prince took her own life. They'd also been savvy enough to add warnings about online cruelty to the twice-yearly handout they give students about bullying, Coloroso said. Prince even got some counseling at school before her death, according to the principal. And yet none of this was enough. Prince's suicide stands as an awful illustration of how the Internet is making the old problem of fighting bullying even more difficult. It's not that prevention is a theoretical puzzle—the experts know a fair amount about what works. But actually implementing a prevention effort is another matter. It requires getting the attention of the whole school. And getting it before a tragedy, not after one, is no easy feat.
For starters, cyberbullying is trickier than the on-campus variety for schools to police. The basic conundrum is that harassment via Facebook, text messaging, and e-mail usually involves off-campus student speech, which is more protected by the First Amendment than what happens on school grounds. The standard is that schools can only discipline students for off-campus speech if it causes a "material and substantial disruption" within school. Online bullying that takes place off-campus is a new test for this standard, and courts are just beginning to sort it out. So far, they've been split. Some judges have said that speech that makes it difficult for one student to learn counts as a substantial disruption, as Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use explains. Other courts have erred on the side of protecting the First Amendment rights of students by ruling that schools can only discipline for bullying that disrupts school activities more widely. (See this recent ruling in California.) Unsure of their power to discipline, schools sometimes assume they can't do anything at all.
But that's never true says Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor who directs the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College. "They can always sit down with the cyberbully and with the parents and say: 'This isn't about discipline. It's about making sure you understand that if you take this further, you could break the law. And also you're really hurting people. Often, in milder cases, kids underestimate how hurtful what they're doing is." Schools can support the kids who are targets of bullying, too, as South Hadley tried to do.