Phoebe Prince is not able to tell us the hell that she went through leading up to her suicide. The accounts relayed to us via the news portray a young person bullied and harassed at school and outside of it. In our outrage, we seek to know why this happened, and how it can be prevented in the future. It seems that Phoebe’s basic need for security was not met, and that to continue to endure her tormenting was too much. What should we expect from our school officials in regard to protecting students while they arre at school? First, an analogy.
We arrived at LSA Anaconda, Iraq, in May of 2003. The ground war had just ground to a halt, and our commander and the rest of the unit would soon be driving up from Kuwait to assume control of the base. A quick briefing and drive around showed that the old air base had a perimeter fence around at best half of it, and that the two main gates were nothing more than glorified greeting spots (they were lacking the structural means to stop a third grader on a bicycle with a bad attitude). The engineers were put on the north gate to begin making structural improvements. One day they were pulled off of it to put in flower beds…this seemed incongruent with our survival.
As our unit settled in, work began on the perimeter fence. It went very slowly. Fast forward to June, and we begin to have incoming mortar and rocket fire, and the fence and gates are still not up to snuff. Combine that with the few thousand locals coming onto the base each day, and security is not great by any stretch. Those that complain about it are ridiculed by the culture of the “get along to get ahead” crew of field grade officers and senior enlisted, to the point of being ostracized and harassed. Under the strain, I am still amazed that some of these folks did not break and cause harm to themselves, or others. Ours was a study in how not to play Army, as the tenant units on the base did not feel compelled on most days to give the base command the time of day, much less follow his directives to man the guard towers (there was night volleyball to play), which resulted in a unit with 45 soldiers trying to plug gaps in security and try to convince and cajole other units to help provide security. It would be like a school being run by five principals, where any one of them could be a total slacker in regards to student safety.
Back to South Hadley. It has been reported that Phoebe was tormented at school, and that school staff were aware of this. Who knew what, when did they know it, and what did they do about it? This is crucial to know, but beyond that, what would each school staff and administrator there, or across the country, say is the mission of school staff and administration when it comes to preventing and stopping harassment and bullying? What would we say as members of the public?
I would argue that since education is mandated for our youth, and that most of them do not have a choice as to where they go to get this education, that schools and their staffs have the utmost responsibility to prevent and stop bullying and harassment. If students were free to leave school if it was unfriendly to them, then perhaps this demand on school staff should be relaxed. This is not the case, however, as some districts have taken to taking parents to court over their child’s lack of attenadance. School superintendents have the obligation to kids to set the tone, and to create and maintain a culture, that all alleged incidents of bullying and harassment will be investiugated, and swift consequences given if they are substantiated. Yes, education is needed as well for the perpetrators, but the victims of bullying need to know that the school is on their side, and will not allow for it to continue, end of story. Anything less is pure cowardice on the part of school administrators. School staff know very quickly upon entering a building if the climate supports bringing problems to the administration, or if it better to turn a blind eye because nothing will come of their reports. They deserve to work in buildings where the administration is rock solid in this regard. It is up to the public to enforce this in our local schools by our involvement and demands that kids be safe, and school staff and administration do the jobs we pay them to do.
What was the climate like at South Hadley in this regard? Most of us will never know. I hope that it was known by every staff that the administration had no tolerance for bullying, and that the administration did all they could to stop it. If it was anything less, I place responsibility on the administration for playing a supporting role in the death of a young person.