Right To Sue Over Bullying Makes (Very) Small Step Forward- Part 1 of 3

My readers of this blog know that I’ve previously written about the subject of bullying (a 3-Part post; after reading each post, click on “Next” to take you the Parts 2 and 3) in schools in Massachusetts – and of the tragic consequences that follow. The last time I wrote of this subject, had to do with the suicide death of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover in the New Leadership Charter School in Springfield. Just a few weeks ago, the equally horrific story of Phoebe Prince was placed before a stunned public. Phoebe Prince was a beautiful young girl whose family recently emigrated from Ireland, to start a new life here. Except that new life was met with death – death at the hands of a sadistically cruel group of ‘mean girls’ from the school Prince attended, South Hadley High School. Those girls targeted the Prince girl because she was apparently the object of a male student’s attention. (It’s also been stated by more than one person at the school, that these girls targeted Prince because she was pretty.) The girls repeatedly bullied the Prince girl, taunting her physically as well as through mentally sadistic use of social media such as Facebook and MySpace, calling her a ‘slut’ and worse. The Prince girl’s parents approached the school’s administrators on more than one occasion, pleading with them to take strong steps to protect their daughter from these abusive classmates, only to see the mildest, most anemic of responses taken to protect this poor girl.

On January 14 2010, Phoebe Prince went home and hung herself in her closet. Her sister found her.

The shocked protests from parents throughout the town arose, their voices shocked and sickened. The South Hadley police promised a ‘full and complete’ investigation. The media both reported on – and editorialized on – the school’s failure to act aggressively to protect the girl. Legislators fumed about “doing something about this” in the state legislature. All the while, the South Hadely School Department engaged in two predictable – and pathetic – tactics: Demurral and denial. And the sadistic ‘mean girls’ who essentially murdered this innocent youth? Whose repeated assault and battery and mental torture drove her to take her own life? Legally, they may be untouchable. There may be nothing that can be done to prosecute them. These twisted, ugly girls (ugly in the deepest, most lasting sense,) were actually widely rumored to openly laugh at how they ‘snowed’ police investigators who earlier questioned them about their actions and Prince’s suicide. It’ not yet clear that the Northwestern District Attorney’s office, might be able to prosecute these girls.

One might think that as a Norfolk county criminal defense lawyer, I’d want that freedom from prosecution in Massachusetts for school bullying, to stay this way. I don’t. While I would safeguard the right of any student accused of such a potential crime, to receive a full and vigorous legal defense, I very strongly believe that the law should criminalize bullying by students in schools. And I believe that the legislature must act, now, to create such a criminal statute. Massachusetts has enacted laws protecting people from assaultive and abusive conduct, which run the gamut from A to Z. Why have we not done the same to protect schoolchildren from the assault and battery, and mental abuse, that so many of them suffer?

It gets even worse. You see, not only is there no statute criminalizing this type of bullying in schools – laws that would enable prosecutors to bring charges against thugs like these girls – but there has largely existed no cases on point yet that would render schools or municipalities civilly liable for this type of negligence (negligence which I think should be legally categorized as wrongful death.) On the civil level, that changed – slightly – these past few weeks. And while advocates of stronger school protection laws over bullying were heartened, I wish that the decision had been a much stronger one.

I’ll discuss that case, the legal ruling, and what it means for the future of these kinds of cases, in my next post. Look for it, as the ongoing development of this area of law is critically important. To anyone who doubts that, remember the names Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover and Phoebe Prince. Aside from the internet, their names can be found on tombstones in two separate cemeteries.