When I first heard this story, I was utterly shocked and sickened: an Irish teenager who recently came to the USA was ultimately driven to suicide. She killed herself not because she had some mental illness; nor because her home life was unbearable. Instead, Phoebe Prince hanged herself in mid January 2010 after suffering relentless bullying from peers at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. As a result of this tragedy, a formal investigation has been launched; and so far authorities have discovered that Phoebe was bullied by multiple individuals over the course of several months. Additionally, it seems that school authorities were completely absent throughout the entire situation. Teachers in the midst of Phoebe during episodes of bullying turned a blind eye, while one school administrator who took a documented complaint from Phoebe regarding the outrageous bullying did nothing.
Before I go further, here are a few other tidbits from this horrendous event:
- Prince was assaulted by both female and male students at the school.
- Immediately before her suicide, she was openly called an “Irish Whore” by female peers.
- The school had the audacity to hold a regular dance just after she died, where a few students were seen making gestures imitating suicide and hanging, as if all of this was just a joke.
- So far, school officials have hidden behind lawyers and procedure, attempting to deflect any blame from being pointing their way. No one has openly taken responsibility for the gross negligence and sheer stupidity of the supposedly “mature” adult staff.
- Earlier in the school year, the school actually had an assembly about bullying from a nationally recognized counselor. Though this suggests some degree of forethought on behalf of school officials, they failed miserably at implementing any of the counselor’s suggestions.
- While Phoebe walked home from her last day at school teary eyed and inconsolable, she was intercepted by a car full of the very students bullying her. The students threw an empty energy drink can and garbage at her.
- Just two hours later, she was found hanging from a staircase.
This story makes me livid. Why? Well, up until my Sophomore year in High School, I was regularly bullied, teased, and antagonized by my peers. Most of the bullies were complete losers who happened to be taller in stature, part of a larger social clique, or soon-to-be dropouts who felt they had nothing to lose bothering fellow students who actually took school seriously. The bullying stopped when I took on some leadership roles in school and became Captain of the track team. Additionally, I made fools of the supposed “tough guys” in gym class when I ran laps around them like lightening, did more sit-ups, more push-ups, and more pull-ups than they could muster. When they realized they were actually the weaker people, they started to clam up.
Things were different, however, in Phoebe’s case. She was a recent immigrant to the country who was entering a school system at an awkward age. In most areas, by the time kids reach high school, they’ve known their classmates for years; starting as early as kindergarten. Clearly, Phoebe was in a tough position from the get-go, coming from a different culture, perhaps speaking differently, and not having childhood friendships to fall back on. She was dropped in the middle of a cesspool, and, instead of embracing a new student from a different country, her peers chose to make her life a living hell.
As I’ve continued to read about the story, it seems like things started out OK for Phoebe. She made a couple good friends, and even dated a couple popular boys. In American high schools, a lot of the social interaction is governed by “cliques” (groups of students that hangout together at the exclusion of others). People tend to also date and fraternize within their cliques, and will rarely break ranks unless there is some sort of falling out among other clique members. Apparently, it seems Phoebe was able to get into some sort of clique when she had relationships with a couple boys. When these relationships came to an end, however, things deteriorated into utter chaos and quite frankly into a form of human evil that many overlook as a necessary part of the teenage experience.
Some might say, “Everyone gets bullied in high school, it’s just part of growing up.” To that I reply, “Get your head out of your ass and take a hard look at what happens in modern high schools, and see that things can quickly become out of control!”.
To me, “acceptable” bullying might be getting shoved on the soccer field, cuts in the lunch line, or infrequent teasing (although in some cases even the totality of these seemingly harmless acts can add up to years of emotional distress for those that are on the receiving end). Most times, teachers, principals, and team coaches intercept bullying, calling out the bully in front of their peers and making them a victim of the same sort of humiliation they have inflicted on others. In Phoebe’s case, however, there was NO responsible adult who acted on her behalf; nor did any school official heed her last ditch complaint that aggressive bullying was taking place.
I believe the bullying from the other girls was the result of female jealousy. To be certain, I don’t mean this in a misogynistic way. It’s clear to me that Phoebe’s relationships with the boys upset the girls in this particular clique, most likely because all or some of the girls wanted to be the ones dating the popular guys. Instead, they were ignored. The male attention that so many female teenagers crave was initially given to Phoebe, the new girl at school. As a result, when the relationships ended, the girls clearly ganged up on her, in an attempt to punish her for dating the guys that they liked.
To be sure, there was also male bullying in this case. Once the guys saw that the group was excluding Phoebe, they followed suit, egging on their peers and becoming more threatening to Phoebe. Male on female bullying often takes the form of unwanted sexual advances, aggression, and in some cases, outward violence. Phoebe was a victim of all these twisted male behaviors, and she suffered horribly.
In the end, it was a combination of female bullying AND male bullying that pushed her to the edge. As a “new” student at school, she did not have years of childhood friendships built up that she could use as a safety net. Instead, she was ultimately hoping that school officials, teachers, and principals would do their jobs and take her complaint seriously. Sadly, the adults, the last bastion of authority in any school situation, completely ignored her. They failed to step up and recognize that the situation was out of control, ultimately contributing to her eventual suicide.
What is a teenager supposed to think when it seems like every other student hates them, and no adult authority figure will take them seriously? Quite simply, that their life is over: they either choose to endure the relentless bullying, which dooms them to a life of psychological torment, or they distance themselves from the situation altogether. In Phoebe’s case, the only acceptable distance was death.
This story strikes a particular nerve with me far beyond the fact that I experienced bullying in high school. More specifically, I suffered psychological distress at the hands of bullies, and had no recourse other than to bottle it up and “believe” that these jerks were somehow right in what they were saying and doing. When you are completely surrounded and imprisoned by your peers, you really have little choice in the matter: you either accept their taunts as the “truth” about yourself, or you find some way of getting them off your back. Inevitably, most victims of bullies cope with the situation by enduring some aggression, while in other instances relying on the adults at the school to intervene when appropriate.
I strongly believe the actions of these fuck-ups contributed to my BPD; and the effects last to this day.
Finally, what does this say about modern American society? My great-grandfathers came from Ireland over 100 years ago. At the time, they were greeted by employer advertisements stating “Irish need NOT apply”. My ancestors were relegated to odds jobs or factory work. The situation eventually improved as America began to accept Irish immigrants, AND these immigrants took advantage of public education to better themselves and gain higher employment. In truth, that’s the story of most any ethnic group that has come to this country in recent years. Well, have things indeed improved when an Irish girl is being called an “Irish Whore” by classmates?
My heart aches for Phoebe’s family and loved ones. They have suffered a devastating loss that was the result of sheer idiocy and negligence that will never be rectified. Even though I don’t have much faith in organized religion, I strongly believe that Phoebe and others that have suffered a similar fate are in much better places…