With nine students charged in the bullying of a Massachusetts girl who hanged herself in January, and $50,000 awarded to a New York teenager after his school district failed to stop taunts about his sexual orientation, questions have arisen about how accountable school officials should be for stopping bullying.
Barbara Coloroso, a nationally known anti-bullying consultant, had been contacted by South Hadley, Mass., school officials months before Phoebe Prince’s hanging death, after a young boy in nearby Springfield killed himself. Ms. Coloroso said school officials made mistakes by failing to stop the bullying and, after Ms. Prince hanged herself, by allowing at least some of the students involved to continue to attend classes and a school dance with no visible signs of discipline.
“The questions to ask are: Did they follow their own rules and did they keep Phoebe safe? Obviously not. And did they deal effectively with the bullies? Obviously not,” Ms. Coloroso said last week.
Local law-enforcement officials said Ms. Prince, who had recently emigrated from Ireland, endured months of verbal assaults and threats after she briefly dated a popular boy. She was harassed mostly in school, but also on Facebook.
School officials won’t be charged, even though law-enforcement officials said that they knew about the bullying and that Ms. Prince’s mother brought her concerns to at least two of them.
South Hadley Superintendent Gus Sayer said high school officials disciplined students they heard had insulted and harassed Ms. Prince, but didn’t know the extent of the bullying until a week before Ms. Prince hanged herself on Jan. 14.
Meanwhile, a gay teenager in upstate New York who had claimed he was relentlessly bullied by classmates while school administrators stood by and did nothing settled his lawsuit last week against the school district.
Jacob—who is identified as “J.L.” in the lawsuit—sued the Mohawk Central school district in federal court last summer with help from the New York Civil Liberties Union. Now 15, he said school officials did virtually nothing to stop bullies who picked on him.
The district paid $50,000 to Jacob’s family and agreed to reimburse them for counseling services, but didn’t admit to any wrongdoing under the settlement.
The U.S. Department of Justice had sought to intervene, citing the important issues the case raised in enforcing federal civil rights laws. Its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services is making a publication on reducing bullying in schools available at no cost in support of renewed local efforts across the country to prevent bullying.
A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as Bullying Incidents Raise Questions About Role of School Officials