Sisterhood Blog

Phoebe Prince and the Consequences of Bullying

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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It’s horrifying that a 15-year-old girl named Phoebe Prince killed herself after being mercilessly bullied by other high school kids in South Hadley, Mass. Horrifying, but sadly not unique.

Criminal felony charges have been filed against seven girls and two boys who are alleged to have been her main tormentors, but no adults are being held legally accountable.

The New York Times Friday ran a major Op-Ed about it, titled “The Myth of the Mean Girls,” which is entirely off the mark.

Authors Mike Males and Meda Chesney-Lind cite dozens of examples to illustrate that violent crime by girls has dropped over recent decades and to bolster their claim that “the wave of girls’ violence and meanness” is “mythical.” They ask, “why are we bullying girls?” and say that the media is using “isolated incidents to berate modern teenagers, particularly girls, as ‘mean’ and ‘violent’ and ‘bullies’ “

But they’re missing the point. It is fallacious to use statistics about the physically violent crimes reported to law enforcement to refute claims about the seriousness of verbal violence, or bullying. Bullying is usually neither physically violent (unless it leads to suicide) nor reported to law enforcement. But it is real, and as the suicides of too many young people show, can have devastating consequences.

This article in Time magazine highlighted the issue, leading with the double tragedy of two 11-year-old boys in different states both hanging themselves after being bullied in school, and spotlighted federal legislative attempts to address it.

The concept in popular culture of “mean girls” started to develop in 2002 with the publication of Rosalind Wiseman’s book “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence.” The book inspired the movie “Mean Girls”, starring Lindsay Lohan and Tina Fey, which came out in 2004.

Writing about all of this brings me back to 5th grade, when I was bullied by a group of tough girls, literally from the other side of town. I was a bookish, socially insecure girl and, new in middle school, had no one to turn to for help.

A few years later I was again bullied, but in a different way. New to the Protestant boarding school where I was one of few Jews, I was still bookish and socially insecure, and a short senior class guy with a Napoleon complex decided to make me his target with antisemitic taunts that lasted until he graduated. Midway through the year I turned to my English teacher, who I thought would be my ally, but Mr. U just told me to toughen up and brush it off.

I remember how overwhelmingly alone I felt as a result. Hopefully boarding school culture has changed since then, and teachers and administrators are better equipped to deal with bullying. But I guess it’s never too late for gratification, no matter how delayed. I just called a friend who has mutual Facebook friends with my former tormentor, and am pleased to learn that he is not aging well.

And in a perverse way I should thank that jerk, because the experience helped motivate me to go to Israel for the first time, for a year on kibbutz between high school and college, and while there I fell in love with being a Jew.

On Sunday, check this space for The Sisterhood’s interview with Rosalind Wiseman, author of “Queen Bees and Wannabees.” We talk with her about changes in teen (and pre-teen) bullying, and what Judaism has to say about it all.


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