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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