Thursday, April 01, 2010

And now the anger rolls like a wave...

As a follow-up to my impassioned blog a couple of days ago about the case of Phoebe Prince, it turns out that the political and legal anger has begun to build like a wave... hopefully to transform into a tsunami. I include an interview and story following what happened to this young girl from NBC's Today show... the interviews and the preluded story is instructive:

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Who will speak for Phoebe?

I don’t write in my blog as a daily practice. I write when the issue or related topic moves me to write. This time I feel compelled to write. I have no other real weapon to use for the sake of Justice. And so, I write.

On January 14 of this year, a young irish girl who had just moved to this country ended seeming months of torment, harassment, and seemingly endless physical and psychological abuse from a self-appointed nobility of students at her school by hanging herself in her closet. She was 15. Her lifeless body was discovered by her 12 year old sister. But finally, very finally, the abuse and the anguish and the mental and physical torment had stopped. Was it a permanent solution to a temporary problem? Have you ever been bullied? Until you have, don’t judge. I know... I was Phoebe once. How long can you handle the abuse and torment from people who seem to be immune to consequences? How often have you told the adults around you only for the abuse to get worse? Who will stand up for you? Who will speak for Phoebe?

In his Boston Globe article on the death of Phoebe Nora Mary Prince, writer Kevin Cullen writes of the abuse the young lady took at the hands of self-appointed “In” crowd girls who partied like it was 1999 2 days after Phoebe’s death, continued to bad-mouth her, intimidate other students with impunity when they were interviewed about it, and act with complete remorselessness and callousness that they had nothing to do with her death . How long could you handle the abuse? We train our soldiers to resist torture to the best of their ability but we always think of physical torment not just the mental aspects of abuse. How much abuse could you take before you had to make it stop? Stop it any way you thought possible... event if it was permanent... too permanent. Have you experienced such torment and abuse? No? Go ahead... try it sometime then tell me with a straight face that “those things happen when you’re in school and you just have to learn to live with them.” Go ahead and suffer through drinks “spilled” on you every day and your head and body slammed into lockers each day. Go ahead and feel that you have to walk the other way and avoid being around certain “It” crowds of students because to go past them invites more abuse, ridicule, and physical and psychological torment. Go ahead and live in an almost constant state of fear and self-loathing that seems to never have an end to it. Go ahead and tell the adults and watch nothing change but in fact get worse for being a ’snitch.’ I hate that word... snitch... it’s a cowardly word. The reality is that there’s no such thing as a snitch but only people who are too cowardly to do the right thing and use the force of authority to make the situation better and stop the abuse. Cowards... the adults are cowards. And as much as the students responsible for the abuse should be held responsible, the adults are just as culpable. Perhaps even more so. Phoebe did nothing wrong from all accounts except cross the often invisible line of clicks, the hidden lines of the cast system of high school to date a senior... and then the Mean Girls,who are at every school, decided to make her pay for her insolence. They say they did nothing wrong. They say they aren’t responsible. I’m sure they have parents and lawyers even on their side to be their advocates and speak for them. Who speaks for the abused students they treat like serfs who live to serve them at their beck and call? Who will stop the abuse? Who will stop the bullying? Who will speak for Phoebe?

I teach. I teach in Middle School. I have for 23 years. I can’t count the number of times I have heard people exclaim,“Oh! You teach 8th grade? That was such a hard time for me. I don’t know how I survived it.” Yes, it’s true that it is a hard time... the awkwardness of growth, hormones, trying to fit in, wanting people to like you, trying to be special... but not too special. It’s like the Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” was meant for Middle and High School. And so putting up with mean kids is just a right of passage in school; we all have to put up with it. Really? You try it sometime and then come back and tell me how you feel and how well you sleep and how every step in the crowded halls of the school fills you with dread. Every step leads you through another level of your own purgatory... or perhaps levels of hell. Ask Phoebe Prince how she felt... oh, that’s right, you can’t. She is dead.

What do we do? How can we change this virus of ill behavior and tacitly accepted abuse? We take advice from Confucius. We have two ways to proceed: We can sit students down and attempt to educate them of the consequences of their actions and hope the lessons take hold. Or, we can punish the perpetrators and the adults whose non-fessence allowed this malignancy to destroy the body of education over and over and over.... Until the abuse stops or they perpetrators leave and their parents have to pay for private education as the penalty for not teaching your children well. That’s how we handle the perpetrators. Then the adults must be dealt with. Hold the administrators, counselors, and teachers responsible for not reporting and then dealing with this. “But the state’s laws don’t give us the power to act on this,” the administrators will say. That’s a vapid and hollow response.... I might say even cowardly. It’s amazing the power a principle has to deal with abusive students. Its time they grew a pair and started dealing with it when students, teachers, and counselors bring it to their attention. Your job as an administrator is not as valuable as the life of a young person. Any other response is cowardly. Finally we need to have district attorneys willing to prosecute abusers and those who help facilitate their behavior: students and their parents. Use the statutes, show a spine, make examples of them in public whether you can win the case outright or not and make it financially and socially costly for such behavior to occur without consequences. Then make the district attorney act as the law allows regardless of the politics or let them suffer the consequences as well and vote them out of office. It may not stop all the abuse but will hopefully bring a modicum of justice to the abused. Thats right. Not a right of passage but abuse. And we in this society must stand up and say, “No more,” to all those involved. Make them pay the price of their actions. In the end, this Mean Girl crew will have plenty of defenders to fend off their attackers... but who will speak for Phoebe?

Follow-up March 31:

It turns out that the outrage over Phoebe's treatment has made some progress. 9 students have been charged with crimes as a result of their behavior in the Phoebe Prince abuse case. Please read the following article from the New York Times.

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