Could Anyone Have Saved Phoebe Prince?

She was tormented by bullies at school and online. Here’s what we can learn from her suicide.

See Emily Bazelon’s special report on the untold story of Phoebe Prince and her suicide.

How does cyberbullying compare with bullying on school premises?

Last September, South Hadley High School in Western Massachusetts hosted a workshop on bullying for parents and anyone else interested. Attendance was low. As the school year progressed, a ninth-grader who’d recently arrived from Ireland, Phoebe Prince, got caught in a torrent of mean-girl taunting. In school, girls who didn’t like the way she was talking to their boyfriends called her a slut. Someone scribbled Prince out of a student-body photo hanging in a classroom, one student said. Outside school, her tormenters ganged up on her on Facebook, making the bullying incessant.

In January, Prince, who was 15, hanged herself. Both school officials and students connected her death to the bullying that preceded it, and the school committee meeting that followed her suicide was packed with 300 people. Many of them were parents, and some of them blamed the school. One father, whose daughter had also been bullied in ninth grade said, “This is not a new problem,” according to the local paper.

That’s why school administrators had convened the bullying workshop and asked anti-bullying expert Barbara Coloroso to talk to parents. The school had been looking at the problem of bullying for two years, they said, and had been about to convene a task force when Prince took her own life. They’d also been savvy enough to add warnings about online cruelty to the twice-yearly handout they give students about bullying, Coloroso said. Prince even got some counseling at school before her death, according to the principal. And yet none of this was enough. Prince’s suicide stands as an awful illustration of how the Internet is making the old problem of fighting bullying even more difficult. It’s not that prevention is a theoretical puzzle—the experts know a fair amount about what works. But actually implementing a prevention effort is another matter. It requires getting the attention of the whole school. And getting it before a tragedy, not after one, is no easy feat.

For starters, cyberbullying is trickier than the on-campus variety for schools to police. The basic conundrum is that harassment via Facebook, text messaging, and e-mail usually involves off-campus student speech, which is more protected by the First Amendment than what happens on school grounds. The standard is that schools can only discipline students for off-campus speech if it causes a “material and substantial disruption” within school. Online bullying that takes place off-campus is a new test for this standard, and courts are just beginning to sort it out. So far, they’ve been split. Some judges have said that speech that makes it difficult for one student to learn counts as a substantial disruption, as Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use explains. Other courts have erred on the side of protecting the First Amendment rights of students by ruling that schools can only discipline for bullying that disrupts school activities more widely. (See this recent ruling in California.) Unsure of their power to discipline, schools sometimes assume they can’t do anything at all.

But that’s never true says Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor who directs the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College. “They can always sit down with the cyberbully and with the parents and say: ‘This isn’t about discipline. It’s about making sure you understand that if you take this further, you could break the law. And also you’re really hurting people. Often, in milder cases, kids underestimate how hurtful what they’re doing is.” Schools can support the kids who are targets of bullying, too, as South Hadley tried to do.

When working to prevent the new mix of bullying and cyberbullying, schools can look at the lessons learned from an earlier effort to stop the traditional, in-person kind of kid cruelty. After the rash of school shootings in the 1990s, a comprehensive study by the Secret Service of 37 such incidents found that many of the shooters were chronic victims of bullying who hadn’t gotten help. Other research, conducted around that time, showed that bullying reduces school achievement. And so a series of prevention programs were launched at schools across the country. Some of them were shown to work. But this was before Facebook and text messaging became part of the bully’s arsenal. So what translates?

The overall insight is pretty basic. “You have to work with the whole school—students, teachers, administrators, everyone,” Englander says. “You need a new social norm, where the community looks down on these behaviors.” How to pull this off? Essentially, a school or a school district has to decide to mount a public health campaign, like the ones that have reduced the rates of teen smoking or drunk driving. Here’s an outline for schools from Patricia Agatston, who co-wrote the book Cyber Bullying. Here’s a curriculum from the Seattle public schools, where Mike Donlin, who works on both technology and safety for the district, is at work on the evolving problem of bullying. So is the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. To summarize the approach that the experts advocate: A school asks students how big a problem cyberbullying is and how, exactly, it’s playing out. That assessment in hand, administrators and teachers start talking—to students, parents, and the community—about the damage it’s causing, and they keep talking about it. They get parents’ attention so they actually show up for workshops, for example, and absorb the importance of talking about the subject with their kids—the importance of taking the issue seriously.

The best thing parents can do, Englander says, is simply to start a conversation with their children. Ask teens and ‘tweens where they go and what they do online. Ask if they’ve seen hurtful postings or texts. Ask what they’d do if they did. Schools can jump start this process by giving parents advice about how to respond, so they don’t feel like they’re fumbling around in a brave new world they don’t understand.

If all of this sounds obvious, well, that’s the upside. These efforts take awareness and effort and commitment on the part of schools and parents, but they’re not technical or particularly difficult—you don’t need to open Twitter account to help your kid navigate the online world. That’s a relief, because cyberbullying and traditional bullying are increasingly tangled up with each other. One 2008 paper found that about 60 percent of kids who said they’d been bullied online had also been bullied in person. The bullies were also active both on and offline, said Agatston, who co-wrote her book with the paper’s authors, Robin Kowalski and Susan Limber. There are also, of course, kids who just get drawn in by the anonymity and ease of trashing someone online—just press “send” while you’re at a safe remove from the person who’s your target. But often the mean girls and the menacing guys online are the same ones who are mean and menacing at school.

In South Hadley, the bullying-prevention taskforce was postponed for a month in the aftermath of the suicide to give the Prince family space and students time to process it, the principal said. The school, the local DA, and the South Hadley police are each investigating the events that led up to the suicide. (Two students have already been disciplined.) Chillingly, after Phoebe Prince’s death, comments taunting her were posted on her Facebook memorial page. It’s been taken down.