Law in Contemporary Society

Sticks & Stones

-- By AshleySimpson - 17 Apr 2010

Eight months ago, Phoebe Prince emigrated from Ireland to the United States. Five months later, she committed suicide. Initially, it appeared as though Prince was well-adapted to her new surroundings - she was well liked by her classmates and (briefly) romantically involved with a senior on the football team. However, her romantic success inspired a backlash and other students (among them a girl who had also dated the football player) targeted her through name-calling and threats of violence. The bullying escalated until Prince was found dead after a particularly harsh day on January 14, 2010. Prince's story illustrates the growing harshness of bullying in contemporary society. The proliferation of cell phones, instant messaging, and social networking sites has provided adolescents with larger audiences, thereby giving their taunts a more severe bite. Now instead of privately excluding peers from cliques and the customary face-to-face disparagements, students can post such derisions online for the whole world to view, and anonymously contribute to.

Prince's unfortunate suicide was not the typical reaction, however bullying is still a problem that demands greater attention. Unfortunately, like many issues, the attention comes in fits and starts as a particularly sad story ignites media firestorm. The recent prosecution of 6 of Prince's classmates demonstrates one approach to remedying the bullying problem, bringing law enforcement and criminal sanctions into schools. Though criminalizing certain offenses can deter some behavior, the logic of general deterrence is stretched too thin when applied to school aged children and the specific offense of bullying.

Criminalization will not Deter the Bullying

The desire to deter bullies through criminal prosecution is misguided. Even if criminalizing "bullying" removes the stigma from being bullied (from "sissy" to "crime victim"), students are still unlikely to report the incidents. Bullying is primarily about isolating the victim from the social group, and while calling down authority might make the bullying less overt, it often ends up only further alienating the target. Due to this reporting problem, it is difficult for school officials and parents to evaluate the severity of the bullying until tragedies like Prince's occur. Assuming that children are capable of the cost-benefit analysis that the deterrence theory requires, there is no incentive for them to change their behavior as the likelihood of being criminally punished is low. The punishment might be greater than the satisfaction they retain from bullying however if they are unlikely to be caught, that analysis is meaningless.

Steps to a Solution

Rather than allow politicians to use bullying as fodder for their campaign speeches, the government should focus on prevention of the initial harms. The first step towards a solution should be to specifically define proscribed "bullying". To a certain extent, the non-physical "meanness" experienced in school prepares students for future rejection in life and provides an impetus for finding self-worth internally - beyond the words and treatment of others. Yet still, the level of torment experienced by Prince and students across the country needs to be addressed and limited. The final concrete definition of bullying should take into consideration the learning experience that a certain amount of adversity supplies. Furthermore, this definition, when applied, should not overly hamper student's ability to express his thoughts, no matter how unpleasant they are. Wendy Kaminer, of the Atlantic, warns that statutes that broadly define bullying, "practically [guarantee] the overreaction by risk averse administrators." She goes on to quote Harvey Silverglate who predicts "a firestorm of administrative actions against kids for saying things that are merely slightly unpleasant but do not qualify as bullying or harassment or stalking or any other such thing." Unless lawmakers create a more solid definition of bullying, both the targeted students and the students determined to be bullies under the new statutes will lose out.

It also may be prudent to diagnose bullying through its less dramatic effects. Bullied children often try to avoid school in order to evade their harasser. They do so by pretending to be sick in order to stay home or through frequent visits to the school nurse's office. School policy could be geared towards carefully monitoring students who frequently ask to see the nurse to discover epidemiological evidence of overly abusive interpersonal relationships with their classmates. This is somewhat similar to the approach taken by Professor Dan Olweus's bullying prevention program. Olweus uses a community approach to dealing with bullying in schools. The program calls for teachers, administrators, cafeteria personnel, janitors, and parents to join students in the attempt to curb bullying on campus. The program attempts to treat the symptoms through vigilant attention, and the cause through education of both students and adults concerning what kinds of behavior are unacceptable. Though Professor Olweus' definition of bullying may be overly inclusive, his methods have found success.

Adults may be better situated to respond to physical bullying, but students are more capable of detecting verbal and social bullying. Bullying works to isolate its target. It makes the mark feel less self-worth because of his inability to integrate with the greater group. Programs that help students to identify bullying and encourage them to intervene on behalf of their classmates mitigate the abuse and negate the isolation felt by the victim. A private school in Northern New Jersey has successfully put this principle into action by instituting a "safe room" connected to the guidance department where students are not allowed to bully one another. If a student is going through a problem, they can find support from their classmates or administers. Implementing policies like this is a step towards alleviating the effects of bullying in school settings.


Bullying became more severe over the years but criminalizing the actors will not dull its power. Lawmakers need to direct their attention to schools in order to have real preventative impact to save the potential Phoebe Princes.

So here's what I've got. I'm still not fully comfortable with the first paragraph after "Criminalization will not Deter bullying" - it feels like we're attacking the short term problems of the approach, when most would agree it has a long horizon. I left the paragraph in, but in all honesty I feel you should cut it - maybe add a short line about the difficulties in determining what is "over the line" into the next paragraph. Also, I made a few small line edits I think I should explain - I removed your reference to retribution because, from what I've read, most parents don't feel vindicated when the bully instrumental to their child's suicide is arrested - they seem to have the same problem you have, that this is just a show without impact. Also, I inserted janitors into your list of school staff that help out students - mostly because the janitors were almost always my favorite adults in the schools. I liked the stark nature of your opening, but I tried to humanize the incident a bit more - keep in the shock, but with more context for people who aren't familiar. Your analysis of the Cost-Benefit analysis can be left in if you believe it, but I don't think you do and I don't see a need to lie if you don't. From our conversation, it seemed like your bigger issue isn't that bullies need to realize that the fun isn't worth the (attenuated and unlikely) harm to themselves but rather that their actions have consequences and their pleasure isn't worth the harm directly inflicted on the other student. Oh yeah, and I'm a fan of the Oxford comma, so I used it. "To my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

I tried to provide you with a good platform for whichever direction you decide you're most interested in - media response, cyber bullying, etc. I didn't find out more about the NJ school, but if you're attempting to propose it as an effective solution, I think you need some more analysis of it. Even just a line about how it seems to be working. I think your analysis of bullying as isolation was a brilliant move - it really helps show why the highly individual focus of criminalization isn't going to be effective, and why it's necessary to have a "community approach".

If you've got any other thoughts, let me know. This paper has a point, and that's something I can get into.

Notes: Thanks Steven. I liked what you did to my intro paragraphs. As I mentioned to you, I’ve been reading up on this issue and talking to our peers about their experiences with bullying, a lot more after writing the paper. I also see your point on the first paragraph following "Criminalization will not Deter the Bullying." I went into more detail in a later paragraph about my gripes with the defining bullying. When you get a chance can you explain your thoughts on the cost benefit analysis?

The school in NJ that I mention is my brother’s high school. When I discussed bullying with him, he claimed that he has never been bullied. I think a part of his memory in that regard (at least until he 11) was my attempt to make sure that he never felt bullied. In that light, his account of his youth certainly speaks to Professor Olweus’s theories on bullying: When peers work to protect each other bullying is less severe. My brother moved to the school that had the safe room in the 7th grade. He thought that the room made people feel more comfortable but it was hard for me put much weight in his perception of the value of the room because he never used it... and he grew to be 6'2 - 230 lb(aka he sized out of being bullied)

Ashley, Sorry for the delay. For the CBA, I don't think it's a good way of viewing the issue and is a pretty bad way to teach a kid. I don't think children would think like that for something like this - most kids probably think they can't be caught anyway. But the lesson shouldn't begin as "Don't do this to him because of a penalty to you." It should be "Don't do this to him because it's harmful to him." For certain kids, you'll probably have to resort to the stick - but probably not the majority.

I agree with you that kids should be deterred by the significance of the harm that they inflict on others rather than by how bad the punishment is but in many instances, children are trained based on consequences. If kid does not complete chores, s/he loses out on allowance. If kid misses curfew, s/he gets grounded. If kid tags a locker, s/he get suspended. On the other hand, the younger you are, the less you are able to empathize or see the world from other people's perspectives (emotional egocentrism) so I'm unsure that attacking the bullying problem from a "Don't do this to him because it's harmful to him" approach first is totally appropriate at all ages. I think the approach should be tailored to the age group, recognizing that children mature at different speeds. They become able to comprehend the harm they inflict on others at relatively varied times. I think that bullying prevention programs should start early -- my first memory of being bullied was in the second grade and it's foreseeable that others were introduced to bullying even earlier. When kids are not totally able to understand how they are hurting their peers, other alternatives such as punishment have to be considered. Unfortunately, as I stated above, bullying is hard to detect so administering those punishments is not easy and that's why I don't think punishment should be the response. I'm stumped on what the true answer is though. I'm going to research tomorrow what age groups Olweus' has the best results in. Thanks for your help.

Also, I think that would tie in better to Prof. Olweus' approach and the story of your brother's school. Now that I know that, I think you should personalize that aspect a bit. Maybe you could talk to him about some kids he knew (his size does seem like a confounding factor).

Two students in my brother's class passed away. From what I understand, the room started out as a grieving room but turned into a sort of sanctuary. I'll see if Russ has anything interesting to add. Thanks Stephen!

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