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Staff responsibilities in school bullying

The Phoebe Prince bullying case has me thinking (always a dangerous thing ;–). I don't feel qualified to comment on the charges being brought against her classmates (too close to home, although I think I approve). But I would like to reply to those calling for the dismissal of the staff (administration and faculty) seen as letting this happen.

If you're unfamiliar, here are some articles on the case in question: Bullying and the Phoebe Prince case, from The Atlantic, and 9 teenagers are charged after classmate's suicide, from the New York Times.

Wendy Kaminer of The Atlantic opined that "school officials who ignore obvious and extreme abuse of one student by small gang of teenage vipers are probably unfit to serve in schools." I commented the below in response:

By this argument, most of the school officials in my childhood schools should have been out of work, as I was bullied in a variety of ways, ranging from mild to severe (physical abuse), throughout most of my elementary—high school career. (The earliest severe situation involved being held down by multiple students and force-fed horse feed.)

This was wrong, and it would have been nice if more effort had been made to stop it. But I don't think those officials should have been fired. Here are my reasons:
  • This was a small, satellite town near a very large military base. The resources for the number of students in terms of space, supplies, and staff were extremely limited. Using the old UIL classification system, in high school at one point we were a 5A student population (the largest) in a 2A school facility. Tracking abuse related to one particular student would have been extremely challenging.
  • The vast majority of students did not experience this. Should administrators and faculty who are providing a satisfactory school experience (despite the limited resources) for 90% of the students be removed because they failed one student?
  • In a small town, the number of people you can turn to who are (a) qualified to perform the work and (b) willing to work for public school wages can be limited.

I am not an apologist for the staff in the Prince case. I look at Phoebe and all I can think is, "there, but for the grace of God..." But the work of a school faculty and staff goes well beyond policing bullying. Unless a teacher or staff member stood right there as a witness and did nothing, or actively encouraged abuse (which is possible; I had one teacher who encouraged my worst tormenters to worse behavior), dismissal is probably not the best option. A better approach might be education, and leveraging support for maintaining appropriate behavior from students or additional part-time staff.

P.S. Something I didn't initially say in my comment, but which has occurred since, is that of the many teachers who witnessed abuse, some were extremely good and tried actively to improve my situation. But this didn't always happen during the abuse. Teachers who did not immediately perceive a specific incident as part of a larger, terrible pattern, but who later worked behind the scenes with individual bullies and victims, should not lose their jobs because of the first mistake.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 30th, 2010 11:03 pm (UTC)
This town is very near my own... my younger daughter (who is in high school) and all her friends talked long about this case.

People can be vicious. Why?
Mar. 30th, 2010 11:24 pm (UTC)
In my case, I suspect because perceived difference undermined their understanding of the universe. When a bully's worldview isn't shared, demeaning the other person demeans the difference, thus supporting their own understanding. And for those children who need to integrate abuse from parents or older siblings with the love they're supposed to feel for them, but lack the adult perspective to understand this, becoming bullies themselves justifies (in a twisted way) the abuse they suffer(ed).
Mar. 30th, 2010 11:39 pm (UTC)
I was bullied, but only by one person, and I was fortunate to have a loving family to fall back on. I can see how bullying can be world destroying...
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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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