One of the most interesting trends of the past few years is the rapid way that bullying has been redefined as an inevitable part of young life, and being treated as a problem that we should see as fixable, or at least addressable. The latest bully-related tragedy is that of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old girl who appears to have been driven to suicide by her classmates who bullied her relentlessly. What’s interesting about this case is that law enforcement isn’t just shrugging its shoulders, but instead hitting everyone involved with legal charges from statutory rape to criminal stalking.
Pilgrim Soul has some concerns about this, mostly that the statutory rape charges are going to be more slut-shaming of the now-dead girl and that other charges won’t stick. Personally, I’m not so worried about the statutory rape charges. I have larger issues with statutory rape as a crime, but I do understand that law enforcement often uses it as a fallback position when other charges (like actual rape or harassment) won’t stick. I suspect that’s what’s happening here; if the boys involved weren’t part of the harassment campaign against Prince, I’d be very surprised indeed. I recall a lot of bullying at my high school involved young men mocking young women they claimed, either truthfully or not, to have had sex with.
I’m much more worried that these charges won’t stick. I understand why juveniles should be treated differently than adult criminals, but that doesn’t mean that entire crimes they commit shouldn’t be treated as crimes. Unfortunately, a large part of bullying involves activities that, if they happened between adults or people that aren’t classmates at school, would absolutely be considered criminal behavior. Stalking, physical assault, and sexual assault are all part of bullying. There is also a lot of bullying behavior that, if it happened in the adult world, would open the harasser up to lawsuits. Think of libel or slander laws, for instance. We shouldn’t treat juveniles like adults, but that doesn’t mean we should let juvenile victims simply suffer levels of abuse that can be traumatic, either. Involving the criminal justice system seems like an important avenue to take to stop this behavior.
The obstacles facing those who oppose bullying remind me a lot of the problems facing those who first raised the alarm about domestic violence. At first, people thought the relationships between victim and victimizer somehow made the crime lesser, and there had to be a great deal of education in order to get people to see that in fact, being unable to be safe in your own home is often more awful and traumatic than being assaulted by a stranger. Same story with bullying. The “they’re just being kids” thing obscures the fact that the victims don’t feel safe in school, and often resort to skipping school or self-harm in an attempt to minimize the trauma. With domestic violence, you also saw/see a lot of authority giving the behavior their blessing. A lot of bullies feel emboldened because adults around them don’t do anything about it, sometimes because the adults also don’t like the targets of the bullying. This isn’t just playing around, and law enforcement can send the signal that society takes bullying very seriously.