Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Phoebe Prince

On Thursday, January the 14th of 2010 Phoebe Prince successfully committed suicide by hanging.  Phoebe was 15 years old at the time of her death.  According to the commercial media, Phoebe had been bullied and tormented at school by other students until she couldn't take it anymore, and so hanged herself.  The culmination of an investigation has resulted in charges against nine teenagers of criminal harassment, violation of civil rights, disturbing a school assembly and in the case of two teens, statutory rape.

Phoebe is not alone.  The CDC lists intentional self-harm (suicide) as the third leading cause of death in teenagers.  The number one leading cause of death among teenagers is motor vehicle accidents, and it's got a significant lead on the rest of the causes.  Another thing to consider is that intentional self-harm drops to the eleventh leading cause of death if the entire population is considered.

As usual in the United States, the major cause of death for teenagers could be prevented but is not, nor is it likely that it will ever be.  The solution to teenage motor vehicle deaths is simple.  Stop driving.  Raise the legal age for a driver's license to 21.  The auto industry would take a severe hit in sales, which is enough to stop any legislation headed this way dead in its tracks.  Additionally, any moron with political ambition will automatically gain the votes of everyone between the ages of 18 and 20 by promising to set the age back to 18 where it belongs.  Of course, that promise doesn't have to be kept.

The United States is a nation that ignores difficult problems.  Phoebe committed suicide, and everyone is sorry about that.  Her tormentors have been arrested and charged with various crimes, and will likely be persecuted to the fullest extent of the law and commercial media.  Legislators will enact new, improved legislation so that this will never happen again.  And that will be that.

Clearly Phoebe didn't have a supportive relationship with her parents that would allow her to talk about her problems at school.  Our elected officials couldn't do much to change that, although I'm sure they'd give it the old law school try, more law always being better than less.  I haven't seen any reference to Phoebe's Church, but if she or her parents belonged to a Church Phoebe might have been able to get some help from a pastor or youth pastor.  Another source of help would be Phoebe's school administrators and school councilors, but in this case it seems that the school knew Phoebe was being abused and did nothing to help.  Nor did Phoebe have any friends she could turn to for help, which is not too surprising when you consider the age group.  How many teenagers can you name that are experts in suicide prevention?  (That was a rhetorical question and not meant to be taken literally, as there are none.  See?)

To reiterate, help for suicidal children should come from the parents, and it doesn't.  This shouldn't come as a major surprise to anyone, as most parents don't talk to their teenage children so much as they preach didactic sermons about a drug free life, abstaining from sex, doing well in school... the list is endless.  Help could also come from the clergy, and most often it doesn't.  Your local minister's areas of expertise are more apt to involve fund raising and organizing volunteer labor.  That leaves the school, which is where the known abuse is taking place.

There are areas that the government has little to no control over, and other areas it does.  The government can't control parental behavior, although it would like to try.  Likewise the government is prohibited from regulating the clergy due to separation of Church and State, although, again, I think the government would be glad to try some regulating in this area as well.  That leaves public school which the government can regulate, even over the obstruction of the teacher's labor union and various special interest groups.

In public school there isn't any instruction given regarding civilized behavior.  The school authorities create rules which favor their own convenience, and which the students are expected to follow with alacrity and enthusiasm.  The staff enforces these rules with all the warmth and tolerance of a US Marine Drill Instructor.  This gives public schools the atmosphere of a prison system or penal institution rather than a place of learning and graceful human behavior.  In most instances, parents or other adult outsiders are forbidden from observing the day to day activities in any classroom in spite of the fact that it is our tax dollars that support the school, but I'm digressing.  There is no instruction in school about civil conduct, and there should be.  What the government could do is require the school to teach citizenship, beginning in kindergarten and continuing through twelfth grade.

The fly in this ointment is obvious.  At last count, 23 of the schools in the Toledo Public School System were in academic emergency, while another 16 were in academic watch.  Translated for the layman, this means that 39 public schools in Toledo, Ohio were failing so badly that the State government took notice and labeled these schools as failures, insofar as the State of Ohio can label anything without stepping on the toes of the teacher's union.  I don't know about you, but I would not want the administration of a failing public school system to teach my own child anything – except perhaps as an example of what failure looks like.  In fact, I wouldn't want any children anywhere learning a thing from a failing public school system.  Sadly, I will not get my wish.

Clearly, Phoebe Prince was at risk for intentional self-harm.  Statistical evidence shows that other children are also at risk.  What is not shown is the number of children who are not getting a decent education because of the abuse from their fellow students; abuse that is tacitly condoned by the school teachers and administrators of the school.  Until our elected officials decide to change the school system and the qualifications for being a school teacher, this situation will continue.


molly lamountain said...

"To reiterate, help for suicidal children should come from the parents, and it doesn't. This shouldn't come as a major surprise to anyone, as most parents don't talk to their teenage children so much as they preach didactic sermons about a drug free life, abstaining from sex, doing well in school... the list is endless."

I don't think we can assume anything about her (or any other troubled teen's) relationship with her parents because she committed suicide. It's a pretty rare kid that makes it all the way through adolescence without closing his or her parents out to some degree or another. It's part of the process of growing up, and one of the reasons bullying is so devastating for most teens is because of the importance of peers at this age. Maybe they knew and didn't take it as seriously as they should have. Certainly there's evidence the adults in the school did just that. (And in my opinion, they are as much to blame as the "bullies.") Maybe they told her to hang in there: high school doesn't last forever, and had no idea how much pain she was in. Maybe they had no idea what route to go, how to go up against a school that seemed to be doing nothing. Or maybe she didn't want to "bother" them with her problems and so in her mind, she fixed them herself...
I do think schools in general take bullying a lot more seriously than in years past. Still, I'll agree we have a very long ways to go.

Mad Jack said...

My thought was that teens generally do not confide in their parents for various reasons. Possibly they find their problems too painful to discuss with their parents.

I agree that the school officials should bear more than a little responsibility for this. The school officials knew about the problem, yet they failed to address it. By their failure to act they are giving tacit approval of the abusive behavior of the other students.

Schools might take bullying and abuse more seriously now than they used to, but that's mainly due to their fear of being sued.

Bullying doesn't stop at high school. Bullying in the workplace is accounted to be a serious problem, and their isn't any criminal law against it.