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.

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Inflicting emotional distress has typically been treated as a civil action. How "substantial" does the distress have to be for it to turn criminal? Severe enough to interfere with schoolwork? Or only if it drives the victim to suicide? The attacks on Phoebe were orchestrated and unrelenting; they "far exceeded the limits of normal teenage relationship-related quarrels," Scheibel charged. But ultimately it was Phoebe's response to the abuse that gave definition to the crime.

We want laws to be applied predictably. The boys charged with statutory rape are probably not the only seniors having sex with freshman girls. At what point did the girls begin behaving in some fundamentally different way than other obnoxious kids? They created a toxic culture that poisoned a classmate. But was the line they crossed visible to all, or blurred and subject to interpretation?

It's easy to criticize Scheibel for overreaching, but her defenders argue that she was forced to act by the craven failures she saw, just like the prosecutors who have charged kids with sex crimes for forwarding naked pictures of their girlfriends. If you don't police this, we will, they declare — a warning aimed at the abdicators as much as the perpetrators. Parents who imagine they can escape the implications of this might want to spend some time clicking through the virtual playground where their children live.

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