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South Hadley Suicide: Who’s Responsible for Making Schools Emotionally Safe?

South Hadley Suicide: Who’s Responsible for Making Schools Emotionally Safe?

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Why are students the only people facing criminal charges following the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Mass.? Ever since the sophomore hanged herself after months of bullying in school and in cyberspace, some of her classmates have come forward to say there’s no way that teachers didn’t know about the tormenting. We all want to lay blame for this tragedy, to point fingers and to punish, so we feel like we’ve done something about it. But the solution is much more nuanced and complicated says Rachel Simmons, researcher, educator, and best-selling author off “Odd Girl Out” a book about the sociology of girls bullying girls. “Any serious effort to combat bullying must take into account the role of adults, whether it’s parents, teachers, administrators, or the cleaning staff,” says Simmons, during a phone conversation today. The school should be the front line of accountability, Simmons asserts, adding that the fact that the case landed in the District Attorney’s office illustrates how ineffective schools are in managing this kind of problem. “One of the mistakes we make in how we talk about bullying is that we spend too time pathologizing the kids, when it’s actually the adults, who, through overt misbehavior or inaction, often contribute to the school culture that allows these situations to occur,” she says. “We expect parents to provide moral leadership and model ethical behavior for their children. But if we really want to deal with bullying, we need our most senior school officials to provide that same moral leadership.” To be clear, Simmons is not laying blame; she knows the constraints facing teachers and school leaders. They’re overworked, under-resourced, and, because of budget cuts, losing school counselors – the very people trained to deal with these situations. That’s why she says there has to be a structural change in schools. School officials need to make social emotional learning a priority, starting with small advisory meetings with students to let them talk about their lives. “If no one is actually creating time in the school day to talk about what is going on, how will anyone find out?” School staff meetings should have a regular time for teachers to talk about “red-flag kids,” whose grades are tanking inexplicably, who’ve been sitting alone at lunch, or saying something disquieting in class. Teachers don’t need to wait for administrators to begin this process. Simmons suggests starting a discussion with your students on difficult topics: Are there differences between how girls and guys are mean to each other? Are there similarities? What is the difference between how friends hurt each other and how we hurt others we don’t know? How do students hurt each other without speaking? Phoebe Prince wasn’t just bullied in person. She also received cruel text messages. Having these conversations let your students know that you care enough to devote class time to the issue, and provides a springboard to discuss rules for your own classroom. And, of course, you can ask the students to create their own contracts for how they want to be treated.

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David Markus's picture
David Markus
Former Editorial Director of Edutopia; dad of 4 (3 kids in public school)

Simmons makes sense. My only experience with something like this, and it was nothing compared to what has happened to the Prince family, was when a boy and girl at my daughter's middle school took to calling her names (bitch, mostly) and occasionally whipping her with their coats.

When I heard about it, several days later from my tearful daughter, I exploded. Went to the principals office and stayed on him until the boy was disciplined. He got a stern talking-to, was sent home for the day, and warned that he would receive a longer suspension if the behavior continued (the principal concluded the girl was not as culpable). It all seemed pretty lightweight to me. So I talked to the school counselor and she suggested I talk to the boy, presuming I could keep my cool and be constructive. Impossible I thought. Until the day I actually ran into him on the street.

I shared my strong feelings with him. He didn't say much, but was not defiant. I asked him about his life. He didn't say much except that he liked sports. I told him I was the track coach and he could try out for the team, so long as he behaved. I told him my daughter was also on the team.

He joined the squad and turned out to be a pretty good sprinter. We got to know each other fairly well. He had no dad. His mom was over her head with him and didn't know what to do. At the end of the track season, she thanked me for taking an interest. I also had to admit he was not a bad kid. He and my daughter became friends and supportive teammates. He had a lot of troubled feelings and nowhere and no one to share them with.

We went our separate ways that summer and the next I heard he had gotten in trouble down in Mexico and was in a reform school there. His mother left the area and that was the last I heard.

In these terrible situations, it seems each of us needs to push through the anger and the fury and try a different approach, to change the overall dynamic of torment, crime, and punishment. And this isn't to say that Phoebe Prince's tormentors should not be punished. They should, severely (I cannot fathom what her parents are living through). But we should all do more than that--parents, teachers, administrators, law enforcement folks and community leaders. We need somehow to reach all these kids on a humane level--those who suffer the crimes, those who commit the crimes, and those who will be the next to fall in the trap. They're children, after all, and have too much time ahead of them for us to leave them in this mess.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation

It is amazing that the neglect that many teachers show in understanding their students and the
way that their emotions and bullying and the crisis events in a child's life can go on.
Perhaps the testing environment has made this worse, but lots of people who teach
ignore the child and go for the subject matter content without thinking..
We can change this.

We must change this..

A child's life is a valuable thing to lose.

On listservs where you cannot see anyone, people go ho hum about bullying, and other
practices that can make a child dysfunctional. Most people think only of the Internet bullying
and they don't really want to deal with it. There are a number of organizations that create the possibility for the schools and the community to be alert and aware. I work with Parry Aftab in outreach and she had a forum that brought together most of the industry partners who talk about online safety. But , on her web site a student could ask for help as well for any kind of bullying. Teenangels are also a group that was organized to let kids learn and be aware of ways to get help.
Wired Safety

Wired Moms Video

I Keep Safe

Laurie Chu's picture
Laurie Chu
Web Production Manager

My sister-in-law noticed something was off with my 10 year old nephew. He finally admitted that for weeks a boy at school had been hurling racial slurs and calling him a "nigger." As a 10 year old he wasn't so much angry as had hurt feelings, and knew this boy was being disrespectful to him. He repeatedly asked the boy to stop calling him names, but ultimately was not capable of dealing with the harassment.

One morning my sister-in-law and nephew met with the principal, and they proceeded to visit each classroom until my nephew could point the boy out. How brave is that! As it turned out, the bully was unaware that his behavior was inappropriate; the words he used he heard in normal conversation in his home. He wasn't punished -- he was taught about self awareness and social awareness, and that he was accountable for his own behavior.

Children are children. I don't think they are developmentally mature enough to deal with any kind of harassment on their own. Adults must step in and provide this moral leadership. Could there have been a different outcome to so many ruined lives had Phoebe Prince's bullies been confronted and told at the onset that they would all be held accountable for their behavior?

I am fortunate that at my girls' (public) high school, they hold regular class meetings to talk about character development, and provide and encourage all the kids (with parental approval) to participate in the TeenScreen Program created by Columbia University.

Debbie Rohlmeier's picture

I'm a teacher of gifted children (who are often bullied for being "different") and a mom of a child who was bullied in middle school to the point that we had him change schools. My community is just beginning to heal from the loss of a student to suicide (much too complicated to blame bullying alone). To be sure, schools should be on the "front line," but this issue is too complex to approach one-dimensionally, i.e. bullying programs/assemblies. This is about social-emotional health. Schools need to have a comprehensive program that involves everyone from parents to bus drivers (a breeding ground for bullying), mental health screenings, and education. Our time with students is precious, but social-emotional skills can be incorporated into the curriculum. As a humanities teacher, we read literature with themes that address differences (Seedfolks by Fleischman is wonderful), belief in self, etc. We have Socratic-style discussions about characters or moments in history and evaluate how they handled their problems or conflicts and connect to the present and future. This multi-faceted approach to cyber-safety, bullying, social-emotional health/skills should be a focus K-12. Our kids deserve it and our society/workforce needs it.

Bernajean Porter's picture

is a resource for school looking to create a climate of respect in schools - this book by Rachel Kessler has practical ways to invite students to have a voice - to deal with diversity and to increase the kindness between students and students PLUS teachers to students. Bullying is a symptom of lack of community - one that can be changed without dollars. What stories are told by the students and the adults in your school about acceptance and respect for each other? See the story of Leila who was bullied for being different as well as the affirmation story of ONE student named Kenny who was run out of his old school and found a new home for learning - a new acceptance in a school that had implemented the principals in Rachael' book: The Soul of Education. Leila's story - Kenny's story - We owe our kids to have stories of living in a culture of diversity and caringness in their schools. We can start young embedding and modeling how we treat each other. See Lu's Wrinkled Heart on my StoryKeeper's Gallery. Let's step up to more than growing and testing our student's brains - schools are watering holes that can also grow tolerance and respect - stron relationships make better communities and better economies too!

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