This morning an article by Slate.com journalist Emily Bazelon reveled that Phoebe Prince, the troubled Irish teen who killed herself on January 14, made a previous suicide attempt.
For some the latest revelation is being billed as a game-changer, proof that Prince had a history of emotional instability that led to her tragic decision to take her life.
But there are a few things that are troubling about this thesis. Prince clearly had emotional problems, but many teenagers do, that's not an inevitable path to suicide.
On the day she died Phoebe was loudly berated in the high school library and she was taunted again as school let out. One student threw a can at her; others called her names and laughed at her.
It’s possible, as Bazelon’s article suggests, that Prince might have killed herself no matter what her circumstances – but it’s impossible to believe that being blatantly mistreated on the day of her death made no decisive contribution.
To suggest "what really happened" to Phoebe arose from her emotional problems and history of instability is unhelpful. Also unhelpful is the conclusion that Bazelon’s comes to about the teenagers who are currently indicted on felony charges: they have suffered long enough, she suggests, perhaps its time to let them be.
Phoebe is dead, for goodness sake. Some kids bullied her about as viciously as kids can and she snapped. I don't think it's overbearing or insupportable to insist they be reprimanded for their actions.
Worryingly, Bazelon outlines a previous bullying case at South Hadley high school to make her flawed case about disproportionate punishment, which in both instances she lays at the feet of the 'aggressive' local District Attorney, Elizabeth Scheibel.
When a young man she refers to as Martin took his boyfriend to the South Hadley prom, writes Bazelon, he felt someone come up behind him and put a hand inside the back of his pants. ‘He felt a finger in his buttocks,’ Bazelon writes. ‘Martin turned around. He saw a senior named Max Keith, whom he'd never spoken to before, wildly laughing. Another student yelled, ‘Faggot.’
Martin reported the harassment to the school administration. Principal Dan Smith suspended Keith for the duration of the school year. Martin told Bazelon he was ‘completely satisfied’ with the school's response.
But when Scheibel then indicted Max for indecent assault and battery, assault and battery with intent to intimidate, and a civil rights violation, Bazelon suggests she went too far. Each charge carries a potential prison sentence. The most serious count, indecent assault and battery, has a maximum sentence of five years. A guilty finding would also require Keith to register as a sex offender.
A well known feminist, known for her pro-choice views, would Bazelon defend Keith’s actions if he had stuck his hand down the pants of a young woman instead of another young man? A sexual assault isn't predicated on gender, after all. What about that does she not understand?
Aiming to bring new clarity to this tragic case, Bazelon’s revelations end up underlining its pathos. That Prince was vulnerable and emotionally unstable, there’s no doubt. But she was held solely accountable for dating boys attached to other girls whilst the boys themselves avoided all responsibility. Prince paid the price, they walked off Scott-free. That, in itself, is the proof of the brutal power imbalance that’s at the root of bullying.
In the end it comes down to this: either you believe that bullying is always potentially fatal or you don’t. If you do then the practitioners have a very grave case to answer. If you don’t then Phoebe Prince’s lonely death will remain a mystery to you, another one of those things you can shrug off as you consign a thousand others to the same lonely fate.