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)


  1. Good post, Phillipe. This really raises a whole host of important issues and highlights developments in social relations that are surely illustrative of the sickness of society.

    Bullying of children by children is only one aspect of the kind of relationship that denies (to a greater or lesser degree) the humanity of the one bullied. This can happen between adults and between adults and children as well as between children.

    If we explore fully the implications of the principle of the oneness of humankind and the concepts set out in the Universal House of Justice's message to religious leaders, we can see that bullying relationships undermine human oneness and solidarity and are the acting out of the anger and hatred that seem so prevalent in certain quarters.

    So, time for the power of love?

  2. I think we are stuck with an antiquated notion of the definition of bullying. The classic image is that of a bigger boy taking the smaller boy's lunch money or pushing him around at school. But like you said, it has moved into cyberspace AND has become a lot more subtle. It is not as easy to confront or punish these kinds of behaviors.

    It really takes a combination of people to counter the things that are happening in schools. No one group is responsible...teachers, parents, community & religious leaders all need to be a part of the process. Unfortunately, what usually happens is a blame game.

  3. Your post, including the call to religious leaders, raises the point that at root, the bully lacks spiritual training. By spiritual training is not meant some sort of catechism, but the training in virtuous conduct and morality that would lead the child to see their peers as members of one community.

    "These schools for academic studies must at the same time be training centers in behavior and conduct, and they must favor character and conduct above the sciences and arts. Good behavior and high moral character must come first, for unless the character be trained, acquiring knowledge will only prove injurious. Knowledge is praiseworthy when it is coupled with ethical conduct and virtuous character." (`Abdu'l-Baha, from the compilation entitled "Baha'i Education")

    Thanks for bringing up this topic, Phillipe!

  4. years ago I was a victim of several bullies at the Catholic School I attended in Indiana.. and my teachers and school administrators did NOTHING TO STOP THE BULLING.. and to this day I sill feel effects of this cowardly act!! The only salvation I found was years later I discovered the Baha'i Teachings and Martial Arts and this told me that it was okay to STAND UP to these COWARDS and not be a victim to these animals....

  5. Thanks to everyone who weighed in on this important topic. If and when religious leadership takes on this issue, it will be interesting to see what impact it has.

  6. Anonymous10:42 PM

    This is so sad on so many levels. My daughter was suicidal at 11 due to bullying and that was in the early '80s. I thought she was over-reacting initially but then investigated further and realized she was being horribly bullied by everyone - teachers had talked seriously with the class with her out of the room, had contacted us and eventually I moved to another area of the country - it was that bad. Before we left, two classmates got up in the class and announced they were not going to continue behaving as the rest of the school and they realized they would be bullied as well but just could not continue to tolerate the treatment my daughter was dealing with - to this day I am grateful for those two young girls. I am also grateful that my daughter has grown into a wonderful, loving and caring person despite the horrible treatment she received between first and fifth grade.

    I will say, the school tried to stop the behavior as did I but it was so pervasive that the little monsters would do it in front of teachers and even myself - I actually did consider throttling several of them as there was no reasoning - it was a sort of 'pack' mentality situation.

  7. Nancy, sorry to hear about your daughter's experience which is all too common. Luckily it did not end tragically.