By now, the tragedy of South Hadley, Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince is international news that is reverberating through schools all over the world. A transfer student from Ireland, 15 year old Prince was the target of a relentless, systematic and aggressive bullying campaign that went on for months. Prince was mercilessly picked on both physically and emotionally. The “team” of immature, sadistic cowards who carried this shameful behavior out knew no bounds and gave the girl no mercy. She was accosted in the halls, after school, via the internet, text messages and eventually was raped by two of the males involved. Three of these individuals, 2 “boys” and a “girl” were senior, varsity athletes who had planned on playing their sport in college before being expelled.
Phoebe’s mother went to the school in a desperate attempt to put an end to this behavior. Several teachers even knew about and witnessed what was going on, yet no one seemed to do anything to stop it. Feeling helpless and powerless to stop her tormentors, Prince hung herself at home in January. Even after this shocking event, her tormentors continued to post things on the internet that made it painfully clear that they took no responsibility nor showed even a smidgen of remorse for their behavior. One of them even texted, “mission accomplished” after Prince killed herself!
Now all involved have been expelled from school and are being indicted for murder. To me, their behavior is cruel and reprehensible. However, what I find equally as disturbing is THE BEHAVIOR OF ALL OF THE ADULTS INVOLVED! Specifically I’m referring to all of the teachers who witnessed and/or heard about Prince’s torment, the school administrators and the parents of these stellar examples of human beings! Why is it that no one at all in this group of so-called “in-charge” adults took forceful and positive actions to stop the cruelty?!
We can certainly blame these mean spirited, nasty sadistic kids for Phoebe’s torment. Heck, three of them are being tried as adults because they’re over 18. You’d think that as “adults,” they would have already been taught at home or in school the differences between appropriate and inappropriate behavior and how to treat their fellow human being. Apparently not! Perhaps, because the other defendants were only 16 year old and therefore, under age, that they then could be excused for not knowing the difference between right and wrong or kind and cruel. I don’t believe that for a minute either!
No, my biggest beef here is with the adults. The adults failed Phoebe and her family and, because of this, are partially responsible for her death! The teachers who witnessed this behavior and didn’t report it failed her and are responsible. The school principal and other administrators who knew about these complaints and did nothing failed her and are responsible. And the parents of these cruel kids who chose not to get involved, turned the other way or dismissed what their kids were doing as an “age appropriate” rite of passage failed Phoebe and are responsible.
The bottom line here is that from the minute this kind of nasty behavior starts, when kids are 5 or 6 years old or even younger, the surrounding adults need to forcefully step in and teach “We don’t treat others this way and you need to STOP what you’re doing!” Parents need to do this at home, teachers need to do this in school and coaches need to do this on teams. Adults need to be on the lookout for these kinds of behaviors and make it their business to nip them in the bud.
Bullying in sports, while perhaps not nearly as extreme as what happened to Phoebe, can be equally as disturbing for the athlete having to endure his/her teammates’ jealousies and cruelty. That’s right, this nasty behavior usually comes from a place of weakness and vulnerability in the bullies. In sports, the athletes who turn on their teammates and begin to pick on them do so because they themselves feel inadequate and threatened by their teammates improvements and successes.
The scapegoating that I see in sports comes from athletes who have suddenly been surpassed by another athlete. Maybe they’re no longer the fastest or best player on the team. Perhaps the “offending” teammate has bumped them out of the starting lineup. Or suddenly the coach is paying too much attention to this other athlete and not enough to them. What’s their response?
They become jealous and angry and so begin a campaign of acting out their insecurities on their more successful teammate. They usually enlist the aid of other, insecure teammates for this “hate” campaign. They ignore the offending teammate, treat them badly or exclude them from social functions. They talk behind their back, being sure that whatever is said gets back to this person. Their message is lame, but clear. “I am angry and hurt that you are now performing better than me and I am going to make you suffer until you stop excelling!”
Coaches and parents need to make it their business to immediately stop this nonsense and do some basic teaching about appropriate behaviors. Coaches especially need to make it very clear to everyone on their team that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated at all, EVER! Feeling jealous and insecure, these offending athletes are communicating to their target teammate and the rest of the team, “YOU WILL BE SEVERELY PUNISHED IF YOU GET TOO GOOD!”
If you’re a coach and you want to call yourself a good one, then this is not the kind of lesson you ever want being taught on your squad. If you are aware of this behavior going on, then it’s your job to clearly, directly and immediately put a STOP to it! If you know it’s going on, get that child’s parents involved as well. Make it very clear to everyone effected, both athletes and adults that there is no room for this kind of behavior on your squad. If the offending athlete refuses to change his or her behavior, then it’s your job to follow through with serious consequences, as in kicking that player off the team if necessary!
Kids can be naturally cruel when left to their own devices. It’s the adults’ job to create a learning environment of safety and security whether we’re talking about school or sports. When the adults allow scapegoating and bullying to go on unchecked, they are just as responsible, if not more, for the sad consequences that result!