Last January, only forty minutes away in South Hadley, Phoebe Prince committed suicide, allegedly in response to incessant bullying. In this past month, across America, several gay teens committed suicide in response to homophobic harassment. The frequency of publicity around these and other deaths has made the prevention of bullying a major topic in schools and communities across the US.
Punishment has been taken very seriously. Five students from South Hadley High School are facing criminal charges for the bullying of Phoebe Prince. In response to the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a gay freshman at Rutgers University, two freshmen have been expelled from school and may face criminal charges. Massachusetts has passed new laws requiring all schools to have an anti-bullying policy.
But these punishments aren’t necessarily the solutions. At the Groton School, several students were about to be expelled for cyber-bullying another student about his sexuality. The school offered the option to withdraw rather than face expulsion. But one student fought to stay at the school, claiming many others behaved the same way and that he was being singled out. Supposedly, the student himself had been bullied after dyeing his hair pink in support of breast cancer awareness.
Within a week of being sent home from school, the student shot himself in the family basement.
It is likely that none of these students was trying to drive his or her victims to suicide. They were just fishing for laughs, or to get even for some minor social conflict. Most of the teenagers accused of bullying have stated clearly that they did not feel what they were doing was out of line, or out of the ordinary.
But the actions of teachers, school administrators, and even police and the courts are not going to stop bullying. Bullying involves three parties: the bully, the victim, and the bystander.
The bystander is the person who knows about and endorses the bullying behavior or does not intervene.
The bystanders are the kids at Rutgers who laughed at the video posted online, or the South Hadley kids who said nothing when others called Phoebe Prince names and chased her down the halls of the school.
Bystanders are the majority in any incident of bullying, and possibly the most dangerous party. The bystanders create a community where bullying behavior is accepted and by doing so, they bolster the creation and actions of bullies.
Recently, according to Mary Verselli, a spokesman for the school, Choate Rosemary Hall blocked Facebook after six students “[wrote] some fairly mean things about some particular classmates.”
These six students cannot be charged for bullying; they didn’t mean for their comments to reach the ears (or eyes) of the victims.
Banning Facebook, expelling bullies, and even placing them on trial isn’t going to fix this appalling problem. Bullying will continue to exist as long as teenagers see this mean behavior as acceptable, as a natural part of growing up. Bullying cannot be stopped with rules and consequences, it can only be stopped by creating a community where the behavior is not acceptable, in private or in public.
Bystanders hold the key to the solution to bullying. Bullying will exist as long as students see ridiculing other students as an enjoyable and acceptable pastime. If you laugh when someone calls another student a rude name, then you are part of the problem.
If we want a “bully-free” community, we have to decide as bystanders that cruelty is not fun, even when it is supposedly “private.” No amount of rules, consequences, prosecutions, or Facebook banning will really make a difference.
It is up to the student majority, the potential bystanders of Deerfield Academy, to decide whether bullying will be tolerated or not in our community. Beat Choate, make DA bully-free.