When Bullying Goes Criminal

When does bullying cross the line from cruel to criminal? And what can be done about it?

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The Prince Family

Phoebe Prince, a high school freshman, hanged herself after being bullied by classmates.

Adolescence, that swampy zone between safety and power, is best patrolled by adults armed with sense and mercy, not guns and a badge. That's one of many reasons the awful story of Phoebe Prince leaves me so uneasy.

The tragedy is now a global parable: a cute Irish girl moves to a new town — South Hadley, Mass. — and starts dating a popular football player. Other girls, alpha girls, get jealous. They taunt her, cross out her picture on a student-body poster, fling abuse on Facebook. It goes on for months; her mother tries to get the school to do something. Finally, on Jan. 14, after a day when she was allegedly harassed in the library, in the hallways and on her way home from school — a canned drink thrown at her, and the words "You Irish slut, you Irish whore" — Phoebe Prince went home, picked out a scarf her sister had given her for Christmas and hanged herself in a stairwell. Her sister found her. The mean girls? They logged on and mocked her death.

These dismal stories have grown familiar, but it is what happened next that tangles our instincts. When district attorney Elizabeth Scheibel charged nine students in connection with Phoebe's suicide, she forced us to explore the line between the cruel and the criminal.

Scheibel had to be creative to find charges that fit. Seven girls were charged variously with stalking and criminal harassment, civil rights violations and assault by means of a dangerous weapon (the drink). Two boys were charged with statutory rape (sex, even consensual, with someone under 16). The town now turns on itself: Is this who we are? Who is to blame? The alleged accessories to the crime range from the teachers who overheard the abuse and did nothing, to the adults who appear just as cowed by the powerful kids as their peers are, to the technologies that give new meaning to mean.

"The kids have a way of communicating with each other without us knowing about it," superintendent Gus Sayer told the Boston Globe. "They really have their own world." But Facebook is accessible to adults too, and the prosecutor called the bullying "common knowledge" around the school and the inaction of officials "troublesome," though not criminally so.

Forty-one states have laws against bullying, and Congress is debating various federal versions. But it's unclear whether lawmakers are stepping in because bullying is more common or just more conspicuous. The circle is literally vicious: one study cited during a House hearing last fall found that 27% of girls who were bullied online became bullies themselves. Lawmakers draft laws as memorials to the fallen, like HR 1966, the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, named for the 13-year-old Missouri girl who hanged herself after being tormented by her (fake) MySpace friend Josh. Megan's Law would make it a federal crime to send a communication intended to "coerce, intimidate, harass or cause substantial emotional distress to another person."

This brings us into slippery realms. "When a bully beats up a smaller student and the smaller student goes home, gets on the Internet and says the playground bully is mean, ugly and stupid," said Texas Republican Louie Gohmert in a hearing, "it's the smaller student victim that has now probably committed a federal felony under this proposed law."

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