A steady stream of hysterical claptrap has been spilling out of western Massachusetts. As you’ve probably read or heard, a local district attorney has indicted nine current and former South Hadley High School students, aged between 16 and 19, for a passel of felonies and misdemeanors related to the death of a 15-year-old schoolmate named Phoebe Prince.
The facts of the case are not simple but seem to follow this rough narrative: a group of some half-dozen girls decided they didn’t like Miss Prince (a recent immigrant, with her family, from Ireland). The girls hectored and harassed her bluntly and in more subtle ways. Their schemes may have included setting up Prince by having their boyfriends ask her out on dates, then accusing her of trying to steal the dimwitted beaux. In January, driven to distraction by taunts of “Irish slut,” Miss Prince hanged herself.
District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, an alumna of South Hadley High School, charged seven girls and two boyfriends with crimes including “relationship aggression,” statutory rape (against the boys), and “violation of civil rights, with bodily injury resulting.” Scheibel claimed that the conduct of the defendants “far exceeded the limits of normal teenage relationship-related quarrels.” But the details — defacing a photograph that included Prince, posting insults on Facebook, exchanging nasty words in the school library, and throwing a can of soda — seemed like pretty thin gruel.
Even the more serious statutory rape charges looked shaky upon closer inspection. They would require proving that Prince had had sex with the boys, who were 17 and 18 at the time. Massachusetts law does allow such charges against teenagers (other states limit statutory rape charges in cases involving sex between teens close in age); still, they aren’t often prosecuted.
A chorus of feminist “activists,” journalists, and legal theorists gathered in South Hadley and started generating hysterical prose about a crisis in “bullying” that has beset the republic and how school districts everywhere must take precautions by hiring feminist “activists,” journalists, and legal theorists to explain how to prevent such needless tragedy.
A second ring of commentators (this ring, virtual) formed outside the first. Television and radio commentators, newspaper columnists, and scores of internet pundits analyzed the analysis for political bias, socioeconomic privilege, and cultural sensitivity.
Some of the commentators from each ring turned their attentions to the high school’s staff and administrators. U.S. law has a long tradition of recognizing in loco parentis — the legal theory that school teachers and administrators have a quasi-parental relationship with their students. This means that they can restrict certain privacy rights, and so forth; it also means they have some responsibility to assure kids’ well-being. On that count, they seemed to have failed Phoebe Prince. But the teachers and administrators in South Hadley were well regarded by most parents, and the DA didn’t seem inclined to add them as defendants in the criminal case.
Some observers with legal backgrounds predicted that Scheibel would eventually bring some of the school staff into the case; others chalked this specific failure up to the more general failure of the public school system.
But the most distinctive response to the story was a sort of loving obsession about the lives and sufferings of the victims of bullying. Tens of thousands of words have been written, speculating about what it must have been like to be Phoebe Prince. Frankly, there’s an exploitive, emotionally pornographic quality to some of that detail. But, boy, does it resonate. Personally. Egocentrically. Here are some responses to the coverage:
“. . . I was bullied so bad in middle school and high school that I was in therapy every week because my mom was afraid she’d come home from work one day and find me dead next to a bottle of pills. And the sick thing is, it was for things that were beyond my control . . . being the new kid in school, having red hair, wearing different shoes than everyone else, my parents not being rich . . . until you go through something like this it’s basically impossible to realize that hearing things like that, day in and day out, will eventually break you. My heart goes out to Phoebe and I hope those kids get what they deserve.”
“. . . I’d like to see adults prosecuted for bullying, instead of being given “manager” jobs and high salaries. In today’s world, “managers” who scapegoat their subordinates and fire en masse get accolades and full time good paying jobs. Obviously, these children have bullying parents who taught them that in our society, this is the way to get ahead and act. We need to punish adult bullies who abuse their supervisory power and fire and destroy people’s lives financially and permanently. Most of these “talented” supervisors continue to harass and bully their subordinates long after their fired by badmouthing them to other potential employers and making them unable to get a job.”
. . . Anyone who doesn’t believe what these bullies did was wrong, whether they are parents, or a teen in school. Must be bullies themselves. I was bullied quite often in school, and reported it too. And mostly, I was told to ignore it. That’s the wrong attitude right away, being told to ignore it. I’m sure that’s probably what Phoebe was told too. Only since she had 9 (or maybe even more) people bullying her. She couldn’t do what I finally resorted to. Which was to fight back. Once I showed I wasnt afraid, nor was I going to tolerate being bullied. Bullies are raised by bullies. And the only way to beat a bully, is to fight fire with fire.
The cult of the victim is a powerful poison. And the Phoebe Prince case — regardless of the outcome — is yet another dose. But in the last response I quoted, amidst the maudlin egotism, is the trace of an antidote.