From Lockers to Lockup

By Bennett, Jessica | Newsweek, October 11, 2010 | Go to article overview

From Lockers to Lockup


Bennett, Jessica, Newsweek


Byline: Jessica Bennett; Follow the author on twitter (twitter.com/jess7bennett)

School bullying in the digital age can have tragic consequences. But should it be a crime?

It started with rumors, a love triangle, and a dirty look in a high-school bathroom. Soon jokes about an AIrish slutA cropped up on Facebook, and a girl's face was scribbled out of a class photo hanging up at school. One day, in the cafeteria, another girl marched in, pointed at her, and shouted Astay away from other people's men.A A week later, as the girl walked home, a car full of students crept close. One kid hurled a crumpled soda can out the window, followed closely by shrieks of Awhore!A If your children had behaved like this, how would you want them punished? Certainly a proper grounding would be in order; computer privileges revoked. Detention, yes--maybe even suspension. Or what about 10 years in jail? Now what if we told you that the girl had gone home after the soda-can incident and killed herself--discovered by her little sister, hanging in a stairwell. Now which punishment fits the crime?

This is the conundrum of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old South Hadley, Mass., girl the media have already determined was Abullied to death.A It's the crime of the moment, the blanket explanation slapped on cases from Texas to California, where two 13-year-old boys recently killed themselves after being tormented for being gay. One of the most shocking examples yet came last week, when Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old New Jersey college student, threw himself off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and a friend allegedly streamed a Webcam video of his tryst with a man. Cases like these are being invoked as potent symbols for why, in the digital age, schools need strong bullying policies and states need stronger legislation.

But do they? Is the notion of being bullied to death valid? It's one thing to hold bullies responsible for their own actions, but it's trickier to blame them for the chain of events that may follow. No one would deny that Clementi's roommate did the unconscionable--the alleged crime is all the more disturbing because of the specter of antigay bias. Yet they couldn't have known how badly the stunt would end. Now he and his friend face up to five years in prison for invasion of privacy. In the case of Phoebe Prince, the answer of who's to blame might change if you knew that she had tried to kill herself before the epithets, was on medication for depression, and was struggling with her parents' separation. So where is the line now between behavior that's bad and behavior that's criminal? Does the definition of old-school bullying need to be rewritten for the new-media age?

In effect, it already has been. Forty-five states now have anti-bullying laws; in Massachusetts, which has one of the strictest, anti-bullying programs are mandated in schools, and criminal punishment is outlined in the text for even the youngest offenders. It's a good-will effort, to be sure--prevention programs have been shown to reduce school bullying by as much as 50 percent. With 1 in 5 students bullied each year--and an appalling 9 in 10 gay and lesbian -students--that's good news: kids who are bullied are five times more likely to be depressed, and nearly 160,000 of them skip school each day, fearful of their peers. Bullies themselves don't fare well, either: one study, of middle-school boys, found that 60 percent of those deemed AbulliesA would be convicted of at least one crime by the time they reached 24.

But forget, for the moment, the dozens of articles that have called bullying a ApandemicA--because the opposite is true. School bullying can be devastating, but social scientists say it is no more extreme, nor more prevalent, than it was a half century ago. In fact, says Dan Olweus, a leading bullying expert, new data shows rates of school bullying may have even gone down over the past decade. …

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