School officials must own their responsibilities

This past January, Phoebe Prince, a freshman at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts, committed suicide after enduring months of bullying from her peers.

The school has come under fire as evidential court documents point to teachers and administrators of the school who allegedly knew of the bullying weeks before the suicide. Yet, the school district continues to defend itself against attempts to assign meaningful responsibility to teachers or administrators.

According to Prince's parents, her aunt informed an assistant principle that she had been bullied at her old school in Ireland. Gus Sayer, superintendant of the school district, responded by noting that Prince had initially thrived at school until an incident in November. From that point, Sayer said, school officials started keeping an eye on her.

From the April 8 issue of The New York Times: "We were aware of some of the things that changed for Phoebe, but we weren't aware of any bullying," Mr. Sayer said. "If she had said she was being bullied we would have acted on it immediately." [emphasis added]

That is bulls---. I'm not one to use vulgarity in a column, but I have never been so viscerally upset upon sitting down to write an article. Simply as a human being, but especially as a future teacher and as a former recipient of always malevolent and sometimes physically violent bullying, I was disgusted by this response.

Let me be clear: It is not in any way, shape or form Prince's fault that she was a victim of bullying. It was not her responsibility to explicitly spell out exactly what was happening to her. It was, however, the job of school officials and teachers to reach out to her in a meaningful way, and it is now the time for these people to own responsibility for allowing such acts of violence to culminate in a tragic suicide.

You cannot expect someone who is so persistently abused to come forward and ask for help. When someone feels so powerless, it is enormously difficult to take action into one's own hands. Help is needed from elsewhere.

Teachers have responsibilities beyond simply educating their students, whether they like it or not. I refuse to believe that not a single teacher in the building was astute enough to suspect that Prince was the target of severe bullying. But if that is the case, then teachers need much more training in recognizing and managing bullying.

It's not only the responsibility of teachers to intervene in these situations, though. Sayer confirmed that Prince went to a school administrator at least once with tears in her eyes, but did not mention the bullying. Shame on her, right? She should have sucked up her tears and spilled her guts to the official, right?

No! You cannot expect that of a child. And you cannot blame the child for not making your job of helping him or her against bullies any easier. It's a tough job. If you don't want to have that kind of responsibility, then don't work in public schools.

My hope is that school officials, both collectively and individually, eventually come to accept responsibility for this and look to improve themselves as agents of protection for students who most need it. This school needs teach-ins for not just the students, but the adults as well.

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