A year on, what Phoebe Prince has taught us about bullying

by Claire McCarthy on February 1, 2011

On January 14, 2010 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, who had been relentlessly bullied, hung herself in a closet.

She wasn’t the first child to die as a result of bullying. But there was something about her, and about her story, that caught the attention of the world. As the details of her bullying emerged, it seemed clear that her death could have been prevented. There were signs. People knew. But they either didn’t do anything—or they didn’t do the right things.

Phoebe’s story didn’t just cause sadness. It caused outrage. Enough is enough, people said. We can’t let children die. We need to do something.

So here we are, a year later. What have we done?

Well, legislation was passed last spring, and recently went into effect, that forces schools to take a more active, consistent and standardized role in protecting children from bullying. Among other things, the law requires that:

  • each school have a protocol in place to detect and intervene in bullying situations
  • teachers report any incidents of bullying that they witness
  • schools notify parents of any incidents of bullying
  • principals report any bullying that involves possible criminal activity to law enforcement
  • any child with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) who is being bullied must be given social skills training and conflict avoidance training as part of the IEP

Also, it gives schools the power to intervene in some cyberbullying situations. Cyberbullying is bullying that happens on the Internet or through text messaging, an area that had been mostly out of the school’s reach. The law isn’t going to end bullying, but it’s a good start.

More people have come together to help prevent bullying. A great example is the Bullying and Cyberbullying Prevention and Advocacy Collaborative (BACPAC) here at Children’s Hospital Boston. BACPAC was created by Peter Raffalli, MD, a neurologist at Children’s who became interested in preventing bullying when he realized how common it was in his patients—and how much it was hurting them. This collaborative brings together professionals from all sorts of disciplines, including Neurology, Psychiatry and Social Work, as well as members of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Dr. Raffalli hopes that it will be a resource not just for professionals, but the community as well, and help guide and support future research and legislation.

“Children are beginning to understand that they can do something when they’re being bullied—or when they see bullying happening.”

Maybe the most important thing we’ve done—or, rather, that Phoebe has done—is raise awareness of bullying. People are talking about it. Antennae are up. Teachers are watching, parents are asking questions, doctors are asking questions. Children are beginning to understand that they can do something when they’re being bullied—or when they see bullying happening.

There is a lot to be done. A 2010 study by the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC) showed that 80 percent of girls and 53 percent of boys reported some type of bullying during high school—these are scary numbers. Cyberbullying has become the most common kind of bullying, and in some ways can be worse since it’s often invisible to adults.

Bullying is something we need to take seriously, because it can have long-lasting effects on both the victim and the bully. In fact, in 2001 the American Medical Association recognized bullying as a public health problem. It’s linked to mental health problems, school failure, substance abuse and even future criminal behavior. This isn’t just about schoolyard fights. This is about the future of our children.

Dr. Raffalli has these suggestions for parents:

  • If you notice a change in your child’s behavior—such as moodiness, trouble sleeping, or a drop in grades—think of bullying as a possible cause.
  • When asking your child about bullying, don’t forget to ask about cyberbullying.
  • If you have young children, get involved with their Internet life early, and stay involved. Waiting until middle school is too late—by then, your child may see it as an invasion of privacy.
  • Make sure your child knows that bullying is never the victim’s fault.
  • If your child is being bullied at school, work with the school to get as much information as you can about the bullying. The more they know, the more they can help. Make sure the school assigns a “safe adult” for your child, someone confidential they can turn to—and make sure you know what the school is doing to keep your child safe.

For more information on bullying and how to prevent it, visit: www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov and www.MARCcenter.org.

Nothing will ever bring Phoebe Prince back. But there are lives we can save. Let’s get informed—and do something.

P.S. – I just came across this gut-wrenching story from Philadelphia, where seven teens videotaped the relentless bullying of a classmate. This event just took place a few weeks ago, and is more proof that there is much to be done to help deal with this insidious problem.

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