The death of Phoebe Prince and the connection between bullying and cyberbullying.

The new world of online cruelty.
Feb. 8 2010 3:53 PM

Could Anyone Have Saved Phoebe Prince?

She was tormented by bullies at school and online. Here's what we can learn from her suicide.

See Emily Bazelon's special report on the untold story of Phoebe Prince and her suicide.

How does cyberbullying compare with bullying on school premises? Click image to expand.
How does cyberbullying compare with bullying on school premises?

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Movies
Sept. 19 2014 2:06 PM The Guest and Fort Bliss How do we tell the stories of soldiers returning home from war?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.