The Massachusetts State Legislature recently passed an anti-bullying law in response to the suicide of Phoebe Prince and similar cases. In the weeks since then, calls have come flooding in to a Boston anti-bullying hotline reporting cases of “cyber-bullying.”
Many (myself included) were filled with vengeful glee at the thought of school bullies being punished (preferably by public flogging) for their youthful tyranny. However, others expressed skepticism and argued that adults and parents were at least accessories to the crime, if not equally responsible. Where were the teachers and parents while Phoebe Prince was being tormented in the halls, on the street and on Facebook, they asked.
Well, they were exactly where they were when any of us got bullied as kids. When it comes to the prevention of bullying, adults fall into two main categories: Oblivious and Useless. Thinking back to my own childhood, I can remember adults stepping in to stop a bully from further pummeling an already battered dork, but I can’t remember an adult ever preventing a bully from actually bullying in the first place. Bullies, by their very nature, thrive in the spaces adults fail to inhabit – the ends of long hallways, the backs of parking lots, and now the Internet. Just look at ‘A Christmas Story’, wherein Scott Farcus would emerge from behind a dumpster to harass Ralph and his friends. Not to give too much weight to the old holiday classic, but it also purports another long-held maxim: Only you can stand up to a bully. Indeed, Farcus’s brutal beat-down is one of the most cathartic moments in film. I literally tear up every year when I watch that scene. It’s Ralph, himself, who conquers the bully, not a parent or teacher.
But the idea of standing up to a bully may be outdated and unrealistic. To most parents and teachers, physical violence in any circumstance is unacceptable and a kid can get in serious trouble for hitting another kid, whether the kid had it coming or not. But I think most of us will acknowledge that when a parent or teacher steps in to protect a child from a bully, the bullying only gets worse when they’re not around. This is what happened to Phoebe Prince as she was harassed on her walk home from school and in the ultimate parent-free zone: the Internet.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with the phenomenon of cyber-bullying very much as a kid. It was a sort of emerging medium around the time I graduated high school. But I can assure you that cyber-bullying is real and harmful. It has opened up a whole new dimension of torment for kids in that the threats and insults don’t end when the final bell rings, but continue in the privacy of their own homes. Most of us have witnessed the way in which the anonymity and distance offered by the Internet allow us to be less than civil on blogs or message boards. The Internet in general is a bit like International Waters, an unregulated technological Wild West where anything goes. Just imagine how this freedom can amplify the power of Internet savvy bullies. This new expansion of bullying to a 24/7 activity demands action.
Bullying is something that almost everyone deals with at some point in their life. And it’s easy to shrug it off as part of growing up; to argue that we all need ‘develop a thick skin’. But reading the extensive comments on each of the articles linked to above demonstrates how many of us still simmer with rage recalling the bullies in our own lives. Bullies need to be held accountable for their actions and, let’s face it, detention just isn’t a deterrent. Let’s not shift the blame to adults. The actions of the girls who made Phoebe Prince’s life a nightmare were cruel, calculated and coordinated. Just because you’re under 18 doesn’t mean you get to be an a**hole.
This new law holds kids accountable for their personal choices and hopefully it will make them think twice about harassing their peers in the halls and/or writing obscene insults on their homepages. Of course, you could argue that jail-time and criminal records are unreasonable punishments for youthful foolishness and would unfairly affect bullies for years to come (college admissions, employment, etc.). In which case, I’d like to re-submit public flogging as the preferred sentence.
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