Friday, April 09, 2010

Bullying in the national spotlight

I live in western Massachusetts and yesterday, in the process of doing errands, I drove by the juvenille court in South Hadley; a building I had never noticed before. Except yesterday there was a cadre of news trucks and lines of cameras and reporters all trained on court doors. And had I not seen the same thing at Hampshire County Court in Northampton the day before, it would have taken me a long time and probably a google search or two to remember that the teenagers allegedly responsible for the bullying of South Hadley High School student Phoebe Prince--the bullying that apparently lead to her suicide--were being arraigned.
It's not that I am not aware of the incident, but that the subsequent actions have been shrouded in secrecy from who did the bullying, who was suspended or expelled and if any school officials are being held responsible. On the last count, no charges have been made yet, which is why Title IX has not been mentioned--that I have seen--in any of the coverage. While numerous allegations have been made that teachers and administrators must have known, no investigation yet has confirmed or denied such allegations. I believe, though, such investigations and "conclusions" are forthcoming.
The whole thing makes me a little bit sad. Not just because a young woman took her own life, though that is indeed tragic. I am sad that this is likely to turn into a battle of responsibility between communities, parents, and school administrators. But bullying, severe bullying of the kind that leads to students missing school, transferring, and even hurting and killing themselves is not new.
I know this not because I have children, not because I am a K-12 teacher or administrator, but because I do this blog. And we report on just some of these cases--the ones in which legal action is taken. But none of these cases of children being bullied because they do not conform to gender norms--i.e. they are, or are accused of being gay--have garnered the kind of attention the Prince case has even though those cases have resulted recently in monetary settlements or jury awards.
I am NOT suggesting that the Prince case is not as serious as these others. After all, reports are that the bullying was very much gender based. Not because people thought she was gay or too masculine, but that they thought she was "loose."*
I am suggesting that had a nationwide discussion of bullying occurred before this case--like when 9-year old Montana Lance of Texas killed himself, or in April 2009 when boys in both Georgia and Massachusetts killed themselves--might have spurred a slightly more proactive stance against bullying all over the country, including South Hadley. All of these cases involved bullying based on perceived non-conformity to gender and sexuality norms.
In order to hold schools accountable for the harassment of students, lawyers need to prove there was "deliberate indifference" on the part of school administrators; that they knew harassment was occurring and did not take the appropriate steps to remedy it.
Guess what? Bullying is occurring everywhere and it is often, if not always, gender based. With the attention this most recent tragedy has received, I think every teacher and administrator should be on notice. At this moment failure to institute anti-bullying programs and immediately address potential bullying is indeed deliberate indifference.

* this was the best term I could come up with--far better than the other ones I have heard in reference to Prince.