Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bully Pulpits

By now you've probably heard the story about the Massachusetts teen who took her life after being bullied by peers. If not here's some information from the New York Times:

"It is not clear what some students at South Hadley High School expected to achieve by subjecting a freshman to the relentless taunting described by a prosecutor and classmates.

Phoebe Prince, 15, a freshman at South Hadley High School in western Massachusetts, hanged herself in January. Her family had recently moved from Ireland.

Certainly not her suicide. And certainly not the multiple felony indictments announced on Monday against several students at the Massachusetts school.

The prosecutor brought charges Monday against six teenagers, saying their taunting and physical threats were beyond the pale and led the freshman, Phoebe Prince, to hang herself from a stairwell in January.

The charges were an unusually sharp legal response to the problem of adolescent bullying, which is increasingly conducted in cyberspace as well as in the schoolyard and has drawn growing concern from parents, educators and lawmakers.

In the uproar around the suicides of Ms. Prince, 15, and an 11-year-old boy subjected to harassment in nearby Springfield last year, the Massachusetts legislature stepped up work on an anti-bullying law that is now near passage. The law would require school staff members to report suspected incidents and principals to investigate them. It would also demand that schools teach about the dangers of bullying. Forty-one other states have anti-bullying laws of varying strength.

In the Prince case, two boys and four girls, ages 16 to 18, face a different mix of felony charges that include statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly." (Read the whole thing here)

While Ms. Prince's death is clearly tragic, it and similar cases seem to be generating a much needed shift in the discourse about kids' inhumanity to kids. The notion that being bullied is simply an inevitable experience of childhood that some kids have to live with is thankfully giving way to an unequivocal rejection of such behaviors (at least in some quarters). While I am not yet sure that involving the criminal justice system in these situations is the best approach, at least it sends the message that bullying is being taken seriously. An aspect of the recent discourse about bullying focuses on who is responsible for addressing it. Some argue it's the parents, others the school and others say each have equal responsibility.

What I haven't heard much of is what role religious leaders should play in addressing bullying. Religious leaders routinely use their spiritual and moral authority to draw attention to and mobilize action regarding issues they view as part of their social ministry. For example, religious leaders have recently sought to encourage civility in social discourse and thrown their support behind the President's efforts to promote a nuclear free world. Why not get involved in addressing the problem of bullying? Why not engage their congregations, including children, youth, and adults (whether parents or not) in spiritual reflection about the theological implications of cruelty in the classroom, on the playground or online? Bullies and bullied alike could benefit from such an effort.

"Because it is concerned with the ennobling of character and the harmonizing of relationships, religion has served throughout history as the ultimate authority in giving meaning to life. In every age, it has cultivated the good, reproved the wrong and held up, to the gaze of all those willing to see, a vision of potentialities as yet unrealized. From its counsels the rational soul has derived encouragement in overcoming limits imposed by the world and in fulfilling itself. As the name implies, religion has simultaneously been the chief force binding diverse peoples together in ever-larger and more complex societies through which the individual capacities thus released can find expression...Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind."
(The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World's Religious Leaders, p. 6)