Thursday, April 15, 2010

Prince tragedy should represent a wake-up call to public educators

I have followed the tragic story of the Irish teen, Phoebe Prince, who hanged herself in January after a period of merciless bullying and harassment by her peers at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts.

The incident has drawn national attention and has prompted many in public education to discuss adoption of anti-bullying policies for their districts or schools. Whatever changes may come will, of course, represent too little too late for Phoebe Prince and her family.

Phoebe, 15, had enrolled in the freshman class at South Hadley High in September. She was a new immigrant to Massachusetts from Ireland.

Phoebe’s hazing and endless cruel harassment by certain fellow students is said to have begun after she dated a South Hadley High School varsity football player, and later another senior male, in the fall following her arrival at the school. Several apparently jealous female students set about to make Phoebe’s life hell each day thereafter. And they did so in full view of other students and, reportedly, teachers and administrators on occasions.

Phoebe was repeatedly threatened with physical violence from her tormentors who verbally assaulted her, calling her an “Irish slut” and worse in the cafeteria, the school library, the halls, the girls restroom, and wherever else she went on her daily rounds at the school.

Finally, on January 14--after an especially difficult day for Phoebe in which jeering vehicle-born students had thrown a beverage can at her as she walked home from school, she hanged herself in the stairwell of her family’s apartment.

No counselor, principal, or teacher employed at South Hadley High School had intervened effectively to halt the unspeakably cruel ritual destruction of Phoebe Prince that had been unfolding in their midst for several months.

Having been a high school student in the mid-20th Century and a high school teacher several decades later, I can well understand what Phoebe Prince probably encountered.

An American high school can represent a highly demoralizing experience for the well-adjusted and wholly accepted freshman student. But for an introverted student--or a student that represents in any way a deviation from the common denominator social, intellectual, and cultural “norm” of a given community, the high school experience can be overwhelming.

Such was apparently the case with Phoebe Prince.

She was an Irish immigrant and culturally different. She was also an attractive girl who had early caught the eye of a vaunted and likely predatory football player. These were reasons enough, apparently, for her tormentors to seek to destroy her.

But they weren’t reasons enough for the adults charged with Phoebe’s welfare while she was at school each day to permit the cruelty to have continued until her self-destruction.

Every teacher understands the in loco parentis concept. A teacher or school administrator has the duty, right, and obligation to assume parental prerogatives and responsibilities in the absence of a minor’s parent. Someone should have intervened to end the harassment of Phoebe Prince in time.

The careers of those teachers, counselors, and administrators that permitted the Prince tragedy to occur at South Hadley High should be reexamined. These callous men and women are probably unfit for their alleged calling as educators.

But more--much more--is wrong in America and in the American public education system than a few ineffectual or indifferent secondary school personnel in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

A child deriving from Ireland or any other European or Asian nation where life is simpler and children are still under some cultural, parental or institutional restraints in their adolescent years would probably be unprepared for the insane circus of mindless assemblies, noisy pep rallies, bon fires, homecomings, football games, crushes, “steady” couples, achy-breaky hearts, endless pettiness, fights in the halls, and the not infrequent verbal and physical bullyings of the timid or the different that occur daily at an American high school.

Unfortunately, that’s what American high schools are at this point in time--frenetic and hellish places more notable for violence, aggression, cruelty, blatant sexual posturing, and sports-related hoopla than for learning.

And where did the students attending a typical public high school in America learn the violence, aggression, cruelty and sexual posturing they bring to school?

From the larger society of which they are an immature part, of course.

Not infrequently students have learned many wrong lessons from parents who are often still more into their own gratification than into rearing their offspring.

Nor are the news and entertainment industries of America without fault.

Violence, aggression, cruelty, indifference to the plight of others, and blatant sexuality are part and parcel of almost all Hollywood flicks and of much television programming nowadays. The negative influence of these mediums on impressionable children cannot be exaggerated. It is pervasive.

What American child whose first memories were of trashy women slapping one another and pulling hair on the Jerry Springer Show could grow up with an abundance of decorum and respect for their peers--with a sense of love, peace, and goodness in their hearts as they enroll in high school?

And what American child might be inclined to display kindness, compassion, and decency toward a freshman girl from a faraway land--one who had some problems of acceptance in her new environment--after that American child has grown up seeing Simon Cowell’s callous verbal cruelty that is directed without compassion at the untalented and the faltering on American Idol?

The entire genre of so-called “reality television” has desensitized impressionable young viewers and others to cruelty, violence, and an indifference to the suffering of others--perceived “losers”, especially. Americans have been taught by their dog-eat-dog capitalist culture of excess to admire winners and to shun and dismiss without compassion so-called “losers”.

What American child might refrain from physical coercion and violence toward a fellow student after growing into adolescence to the background din of news programs on which reportage of torture, murder, and mayhem being visited daily on Iraqis and Afghans by Americans in uniform is a nightly occurrence?

We have been told by former vice president Dick Cheney that water boarding is acceptable. We were told by various Bush administration spokespersons that stress positions, sleep deprivation, and other torture techniques clearly in defiance of the Geneva Conventions were justified because the victims were terroristic “others“.

What adolescent Internet surfer in America has not seen and possibly been impressed by the terrible Abu Ghraib prison photos in which grinning young Americans gave the “thumbs up” after beating an Iraqi prisoner to death?

An unjust war is the greatest moral evil in which any nation or society can become involved, and today’s American teens have seen their nation pursuing cruel and unjust wars for the majority of their lives--almost a decade now.

In truth, an American high school represents nothing more than a hormone-laced adolescently volatile microcosmic distillation of the pervasive American culture that has shaped students and made them what they are when they enroll in high school. The nation is reaping an inevitable whirlwind nowadays with the young.

But these hard truths about our nation and its shallow, hedonistic culture of violence, disrespect for decorum, and lack of compassion do not mitigate the guilt of every South Hadley High School teacher, counselor, and administrator who might have intervened to prevent the death of Phoebe Prince. Teachers, counselors, and school administrators should be exemplars. Rightly or wrongly, more is expected of them than of most others. They should have been more alert to what was occurring and more assertive in wading in to stop it.

The “kids will be kids--let them work it out” admonition is a cop out at any school. It was not good enough at South Hadley High School and it is not good enough at any other public secondary school.

Despite their swagger--their occasional athletic prowess and popularity--their new vehicles--their familial relationships to influential school board members in some cases--high school students are minors in need of much direction and imposition of definite limits on their behavior. They cannot be left to their own devices and youthful excesses.

Phoebe Prince is gone, but in the wake of her tragic story, schools across America should adopt as soon as practical whatever rules of so-called “tough love” are necessary to enforce decorum and bring an end to hazing and bullying in all its forms.

During the six or more hours students are in the care and under the supervision of teachers and administrators, they should be supervised and controlled at all times. If this necessitates a higher degree of security on campus--professional security guards, guard dogs and metal detectors--less “freedom” for students--so be it.

What is more important than rescuing the public schools of this nation and the students that pass through them during their turbulent adolescent years from the hell that was Phoebe Prince’s lot?

If this nation is to be saved, that redemption must begin with the young. Now is the time.