read more: Boston Herald

By now, most of us can recite the Phoebe Prince story by heart: A 15-year-old immigrant girl hangs herself after being subjected to relentless bullying by “mean girls” at South Hadley High School.  It’s a heartbreaking tale that has left many wondering what can be done to prevent tragedies like this from ever happening again.

Unfortunately, however, rather than view the Prince tragedy through the lens of personal responsibility, we reflexively seek government intervention and legal action.

In the aftermath of Phoebe’s death, Massachusetts rushed to enact anti-bullying legislation, which — you will be relieved to know — designates the fourth Wednesday in January as “No Name Calling Day.” (Now if that doesn’t put a parent’s mind at ease, I don’t know what will!)

To be sure, the legislation — hailed as the most comprehensive in the nation — does more than just set aside a day for bullying awareness. It also dictates that school personnel report bullying to a designated school official, mandates yearly training for all personnel and requires anti-bullying instruction in all grades.

Will such legislation do anything to change high school culture? Unlikely.

Long before Massachusetts passed this law, South Hadley High was a proud sponsor of National Bullying Prevention Awareness Week. But all of the school’s efforts to prevent peer harassment were unable to protect Phoebe from the taunts of her classmates.

And so, in an effort to deter future bullying, prosecutors brought criminal charges against the students who harassed Phoebe. When last week, as part of a plea agreement, a judge sentenced the teens to probation and community service, many commentators expressed outrage and, predictably, blamed the criminal justice system.

Others suggested that a civil lawsuit might be the best way to attack the problem. Indeed, lawyer Wendy Murphy has publicly encouraged Phoebe’s parents to sue the school district under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  But although Murphy admits that suing a public school may be “unpopular,” she argues that the “financial pain [of a civil suit] will change school culture better and more quickly than hand-wringing, new antibullying laws, revised training programs and even a ton of bad press.”

How a civil suit will encourage Massachusetts schools to be more proactive than they are already legally required to be, Murphy does not say. Moreover, Murphy fails to mention that the “financial pain” to which she refers will be felt not simply by school administrators but by taxpayers and all students (including the victims of bullying).

It is, of course, easy to blame the school system for failing to stop peer harassment or the justice system for not punishing it harshly enough. And parents, all of whom live in glass houses, naturally hesitate to blame the moms and dads who raised Phoebe’s tormentors.

The truth, however, is that lawsuits, additional layers of administrative bureaucracy, “No Name Calling Days” and anti-bullying curricula will do little to curb the poor judgment of teens raised in a culture of personal degradation.

On trash-TV and in hip-hop music, abusive and demeaning language is commonplace.  In the political sphere, grown men and women think nothing of calling of their opponents “morons” and “whores” and otherwise trashing those who dare dissent from conventional political wisdom.  And, unfortunately, in many homes, parents themselves engage in the very behavior we are trying to legislate away.  Children will, inevitably, emulate that which they see. So, until grownups take responsibility for the values we transmit to our children, schoolyard bullying is here to stay.


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