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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Bullying kills - or does it? Add to ...

On Jan. 14, 2010, a 15-year-old named Phoebe Prince was taunted by some classmates on her way home from school in Massachusetts. Later that day, she texted a boy she knew and said, “I cant do it anymore ... im literally home alone cryn.” Then she hanged herself in the stairwell of her home with a black scarf.

Phoebe’s suicide turned an international spotlight on the problem of adolescent bullying. Six students were charged in connection with her death. They were accused by the prosecutor of waging a campaign of relentless bullying over many months, and widely vilified in the media for causing the death of a vulnerable girl.

Since then, thousands of news stories and features have condemned the bullying epidemic. At least 40 U.S. states, as well as Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec have introduced bullying laws. A powerful new film, Bully, is playing in both Canada and the U.S. to wide acclaim. Bully follows several kids who are the targets of brutal taunting and harassment as parents and school administrators stand helplessly by. One of the victims is Tyler Long, 17, a top student with Asperger syndrome. He killed himself after years of being hounded in school for being different. “They took his pride from him,” his anguished father said. “He was a hollow person.”

Although public awareness of bullying is at an all-time high, the epidemic seems worse than ever. Nearly every day brings fresh news of another teenage suicide. Grieving families, bullying experts and politicians all warn that new laws and protections are urgently needed before more kids die.

If only things were that simple.

Emily Bazelon has discovered that they are not. Ms. Bazelon, an accomplished journalist for the online magazine Slate, conducted an exhaustive investigation of the Phoebe Prince tragedy. She found that the real story was far more complex. Phoebe had indeed been taunted and harassed. But she wasn’t entirely a helpless victim. She had set in motion the conflicts that deeply upset the other students. (They centred on boyfriend issues.) She was also deeply troubled. Her parents had split up, and she’d just moved from Ireland to the U.S. She had a history of depression and cutting. Before she killed herself, she went off her antidepressants.

And the prosecutor didn’t have much of a case. Five of the students eventually took plea deals for minor misdemeanours. Three received probation and community service; two, probation. The other charges were dropped. Their bad behaviour shouldn’t be excused. But they seem like normal decent kids who acted meanly. A bad case of “normal girl drama,” as several other kids put it.

Ms. Bazelon is also troubled by the Tyler Long story as told in Bully. The film never mentions that Tyler had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, as well as Asperger, in Grade 6. Both conditions are linked with suicide. There’s also evidence that Tyler had been having suicidal thoughts before his death. “To leave Tyler’s mental health problems out of the film is an egregious omission,” Ann Haas, an official with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told Ms. Bazelon in an interview. “The filmmakers had the opportunity to present bullying as a trigger, as one factor that played a role in a young person’s suicide. But to draw a direct line without referencing anything else – I’m appalled.” (Tyler’s parents say his mental health history is irrelevant. They blame school officials for his death, and are suing the school district for $1.7-million (U.S.) in damages.)

Ms. Haas has a bigger concern. She’s worried that such simplistic versions of complex events could raise the risk of “suicide contagion” – the tendency for troubled kids to copy other kids’ behaviour. (It’s an all-too-familiar phenomenon in some aboriginal communities.) In other words, if kids think bullying kills, they may be more likely to believe that suicide is a normal response to it.

Ms. Bazelon, who’s working on a book on bullying called Sticks and Stones, has no wish to minimize the problem away, nor do I. Bullying is a serious issue that needs intelligent attention. I’m sure that bullying really can kill, sometimes. But the tragedy of teenage suicide can’t simply be explained away by blaming mean girls, or bad boys, or homophobia, or cyberspace. Sometimes there are no villains after all.

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