Teens Charged in the Bullying Death of Phoebe Prince: How Do You Help Your Kids Avoid Bullies?

Teens Charged in the Bullying Death of Phoebe Prince: How Do You Help Your Kids Avoid Bullies?

Almost two months after the hanging death of Phoebe Prince, who was bullied by students at her South Hadley high school, nine students have been charged with felony indictments. According to the Washington Post,

"Nine fellow students face charges in connection with her death, including two teen boys charged with statutory rape and a clique of girls charged with stalking, criminal harassment and violating Phoebe's civil rights. School officials won't be charged, even though authorities say they knew about the bullying."

The bullying took place both in person and over the Internet, with hostile statements appearing after her death on a memorial Facebook page.

Separate from these charges, the state has been working on an anti-bullying law (which is close to being passed) in response to not only Phoebe Prince's suicide, but the suicide of Carl Walker-Hoover in another Western Massachusetts town -- Springfield -- which occurred this time last year, showing that government is taking the effects of bullying seriously.

The charges are a triumph on the side of accountability for behavior, but do nothing to bring back a girl from a death that could have been prevented: The Washington Post today also published a heart-breaking article reporting that the school didn't put into effect the advice given to them by the anti-bullying expert they consulted.

Just as guns changed the face of warfare by removing the need to look the person you're harming in the face (as emotionally difficult as it can be to fire a gun, it still removes the person from the closeness necessary when using swords and bayonets), computers have changed the face of bullying. They make it possible to not only be more discreet and fly under the radar of adults, but also to become more impersonal. It is easier to forget how a victim is processing bullying if a bully does not need to look their victim in the face while they torment her. And it is much easier for bullies to write off or justify their behavior when they don't have to watch the fall-out.

Bullying is not only becoming more prevalent, but according to the Telegraph, in England, cyberbullying has become the most common form of bullying ("How Common is Bullying" has equally scary statistics for the United States).

It can be difficult for parents to figure out what constitutes bullying versus normal childhood boundary-pushing interactions. First of all, it's important to note that bullying can take a multitude of forms from physical harm to verbal assaults. It can take place face-to-face or discreetly over the Internet. Bullying can be about exclusion, making a child feel unsafe or ridiculed or using peer pressure to instigate behavior.

According to the guidelines proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services, parents should sit down and listen when a child tells them he/she is being bullied and then,

  • Do not use the word "ignore," because children can often misunderstand.
  • Don't blame the child being bullied. There is never an excuse for bullying and indicating that certain behavior draws bullying sends the wrong message about bullying.
  • Collect as many details as possible by asking questions. Ask your child if there were any witnesses to the bullying.
  • Support your child by making her feel safe, and let her know next steps you intend to take.
  • Contact adults who interact with your child when you are not there, such as teachers and principals. and present the information calmly, giving as many details as possible. Allow the school -- an impartial third party -- to contact the other parents.
  • Help your child feel confident by pointing out places she excels. Help her to choose friends to align herself with during school hours, as well as meeting new people outside of the bullying environment (such as in an after-school class giving the child a fresh start socially).
  • Help your child come up with a strategy if bullying occurs again by using role playing to act out various scenarios. Akin to the military adage of "prior preparation prevents poor performance," making sure your child knows what steps to take can give her confidence that she can take care of herself if a bully strikes again.
  • Don't wait for your child to come to you with information that she is being bullied. Watch for warning signs, and approach your child if you suspect bullying. Warning signs include unexplained injuries (including scratches); a lack of friends; fear about attending school/events with peers; suddenly beginning to do poorly in school; moodiness or change in demeanor; complaints of physical symptoms, such as stomachaches or headaches; and change in sleeping or eating habits.

What other advice can you give from experience or observation on how to protect children from bullying (and process bullying when it does occur) so another death, such as those of Phoebe Prince and Carl Walker-Hoover never happen again?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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