Sunday 24 September 2017

Two views on Phoebe's bullies – and no answers

DONAL LYNCH

Tread Softly: Bullying And The Death Of Phoebe Prince

EJ Fleming Hall Hill Press, €10.99

Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture Of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power Of character and Empathy

Emily Bazelon, Random House, €13.99 Both available on Amazon.com

It's been just over three years since the suicide of Co Clare schoolgirl Phoebe Prince became an international cause celebre and prompted court cases and law changes in Massachusetts. In the intervening period, the controversy around the story has cooled; the six schoolmates of Prince, who were charged with a range of offences related to bullying her in the months before she died, have gone on with their lives: two have been charged with drink-driving, one became pregnant.

Anne O'Brien, Phoebe's mother, and her sister, Lauren, moved back to Ireland to be with Phoebe's father, Jeremy. The court case the family took against the school board in Massachusetts has long since settled and, in time, other bullying-related suicides have come to dominate the news. South Hadley, the quiet New England town where events unfolded, is no longer the 'Ground Zero' of bullying.

And so neither Emily Bazelon nor EJ Fleming, two dogged chroniclers of the Prince case, can be accused of rushing out their books to cash in on a hot topic. Released just a couple of months apart, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy and Tread Softly: Bullying and the Death of Phoebe Prince present rival and often contradictory accounts of Phoebe's suicide and the issues surrounding it.

Fleming, who has family links in Massachusetts, wrote his book with the belated approval of the Prince family. Toward the end of the book, they endorse it as "the only true and balanced account of a tragedy that will live with us forever".

This may be in part because Fleming is acting as the family's attack dog: he launches several robust broadsides at Bazelon and her journalism – a source of great distress to the Prince family during the coverage of the court cases.

The Slate magazine columnist and research fellow at Yale Law School wrote a series of pieces (with follow-up appearances on morning television in the US) in which she questioned the zealousness of the prosecutor, Elizabeth Scheibel, in trying kids in court for what some thought of as schoolyard skirmishes.

In presenting her arguments that bullying was not the sole cause of Prince's suicide and that the courts were not the place to deal with bullying, Bazelon revealed the Clare schoolgirl's history of poor mental health, self-harm, anti-depressant use and conflict with her mother.

Bazelon says she "wrestled ... with the question of how much to give a full account of Phoebe's death without being exploitative", although one gets the distinct impression she didn't wrestle too hard. Still, Fleming devoting pages of his book to attacking her principles, methods and previous (unrelated) work, rather than her arguments, seems a little unnecessary.

Tread Softly is meticulously, exhaustively researched – Fleming had the jump on most of the media in his covering of the Prince story – but it is also narrower in scope and more personally judgmental in its tone than Sticks and Stones, which encompasses an anthropological and historical view of bullying.

Bazelon, who begins with her own first-person account of schoolyard victimhood, sees echoes of classroom cruelty in lynch mobs and pogroms. She traces official concern with school bullying in the US back to the Columbine school massacre of 1999, at which point the FBI and other agencies began to notice that the kids who committed such atrocities were likely to have been isolated and victimised.

She discusses the approach of other countries in dealing with bullying – the work of a Swedish psychologist called Dan Olweus is particularly instructive – and the emergent role of cyberbullying.

"Bullying and technology sets off old alarms and new ones", she writes. "[They are] a pairing practically designed to obsess us."

She points to US judicial recognition of the immaturity of the teenage brain and cautions against too broad or narrow a definition of bullying. To qualify as bullying, she says, an activity has to satisfy three criteria: it must involve "verbal or physical abuse, it has to repeat over time and it has to involve an imbalance of power".

She concludes: "it's a tricky balance to strike, the line between protecting kids and policing them. But we have to keep trying to find it."

Tread Softly does not reach for such lofty prescriptions, instead limiting itself to a compelling, harrowing and occasionally over-detailed narrative of the events surrounding Phoebe's death and the shameful actions and inactions of the school authorities.

In the immediate aftermath of the book's release, it was reported by Boston Globe scribe Kevin Cullen that a brick had been thrown through the window of Darby O'Brien, owner of a PR firm in South Hadley and one of the interviewees in Fleming's book.

Bazelon's book has caused its own stir by becoming a fast bestseller. In it, she lives up to her reputation as the Prince family's bete noire. She focuses in one chapter on a long and sympathetic interview with Flannery Mullins – one of the little hoodlums who never apologised to the Prince family before she was legally required to do so and the sole girl bully who did not shed a tear during her court statements.

Bazelon's account here – detailing the effects the cases had on the bullies' lives, but not discussing the decimation that their actions and Phoebe's death wreaked on the Prince family – does seem skewed by the fact that Mullins gave her full access while the Prince family and prosecutor mostly refused to cooperate (Jeremy Prince, Phoebe's father, did speak briefly to Bazelon).

Still, her observation that the prosecutor, Elizabeth Scheibel, emerged oddly unscathed having seen most of her attention-getting charges quietly dropped, seems spot on and an under-examined aspect of the whole story.

Fleming calls Scheibel "brave", but why expose the teenagers (and by extension Phoebe Prince herself) to the spotlight of international infamy in the first place if she could not be sure of securing convictions? It's a question that has never been satisfactorily answered.

Irish Independent

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