WBUR

Teen Suicide Sheds Light On New Era Of Bullying

HINGHAM, Mass. — Rene Lapore, 17, is a senior at Hingham High School. We met recently at a local coffee shop, where she demonstrated a Facebook application called Honesty Box. Users are encouraged to send anonymous messages to people, saying what they honestly think about them. Rene thinks what it actually encourages is teen bullying.

South Hadley High School freshman Phoebe Prince, 15, is thought to have killed herself after enduring harassment by her classmates at school and online.

“People can send you things — awful things to you — anonymously, and you won’t even be able to find out who they are,” Rene says.

“I had a couple messages about my prom dress being ugly. A couple of my other friends got really hurtful ones about their personality, that they’re ugly, or that nobody likes them. Some people’s self-esteem really plummets because of it.”

And Rene should know. When she was a freshman, she was bullied online when another girl, pretending to be a boy, would regularly send her hurtful instant messages.

“The person kept IM’ing me, and I said, that’s not true, my friends don’t think that about me. And they just kept coming and coming and wouldn’t really stop,” Rene says.

The way it did stop, months later, was when Rene found out from other students who her main online tormentor was and they talked it out, in person. But she never told her parents or an adult at school until just recently. She says teens often don’t speak up because they don’t want to get taunted more.

The suicide of a 15-year-old girl in South Hadley last month is raising questions throughout Massachusetts about what schools, state officials, parents and students should do about school bullying. With bullies now more likely to be on the computer than in the school yard, a lot of teen taunting is happening on the screen.

Sirdeaner Walker’s 11-year-old son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, committed suicide last April after a fight in school. “My son was afraid he would be labeled — and he specifically said: a rat, a snitch, or a fink,” Walker said.

Sirdeaner Walker, of Springfield. Her 11-year-old son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, committed suicide last April. (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

Although she had discussed the bullying with officials at the New Leadership Charter School in Springfield, where Carl attended, she did not realize the extent of it. “I believe in my heart, based on my son’s case, that there was an awareness that this was going on,” Walker said.

“Whether it was teachers, staff, cafeteria workers,” she said, “if there’s an awareness and nothing is being done to stop this, then someone needs to be held accountable.”

That’s what many parents are saying in nearby South Hadley, where Phoebe Prince committed suicide. She was a freshman, new to South Hadley, and allegedly was bullied — in school, at home and online. Some parents are circulating a petition calling on school superintendent Gus Sayer to step down.

Sayer refuses. South Hadley has been taking steps against bullying, Sayer said, but in this case, it appears that things happened quickly, and out of sight of adults.

“Unfortunately, the bullying that Phoebe suffered occurred in a relatively short span of time,” Sayer said. “As far as we can tell perhaps no more than two weeks. She did not discuss it with any staff members or her family.”

Criticized following Phoebe Prince's suicide, South Hadley Superintendent Gus Sayer refuses to step down. (Deborah Becker/WBUR)

Both school officials and law enforcement are investigating who knew what about the bullying when, and when the students directly involved are identified, they likely will face criminal charges.

Requiring teachers to report bullying is just one provision in the 11 anti-bullying bills now before the state Legislature. State Rep. Marty Walz, co-chairwoman of the joint education committee, plans to send one comprehensive bill to lawmakers by the end of the month. She said most Massachusetts schools now have anti-bullying policies, but this bill will call for broader changes.

“What I really want to get at is focusing on curriculum in schools and trying to change school climates so that you prevent the bullying from even occurring in the first place,” Walz said.

Although that may take quite some time, parents like Sirdeaner Walker say they will keep pushing for strong anti-bullying rules.

“As difficult as this is for me, I think this will be Carl’s legacy,” Walker said. “He was such a fun, loving child. He was a wonderful son. If I can help reach out to other children and parents, that can be his legacy. It won’t be (that) he was bullied in school and he took his life because of this.”

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  • sirdeaner walker

    wbur interview

  • Iris

    Can Facebook users block the receipt of messages from the Honesty Box application? Perhaps the sender gets a message back saying that the “honest” comments cannot be sent — a pretty standard error message — yet a message that may make the sender think about his/her actions.

  • Esme Kaye

    When it comes to bullying among young kids and teens, this is not a new problem. Nor is this beautiful young girl the first to die so tragically as a result of it. We still haven’t gotten a hold on the old fashioned harassment – that which happens in the hallways, the bathrooms, on the bus, and sometimes even in the classroom, right in front of the teacher!

    We, as parents, need to teach our children, from the very start, that each person in valuable and vulnerable. They need to understand that people do the things they do for reasons we don’t know about. They need to be taught to empathize, shown by example how hurtful it is to be bullied. The very young child’s behavior must be monitored and directed in an age appropriate way. It’s not terribly challenging to listen to a 4 year old recount the story of somebody falling off the swing and then express sorrow for the child’s injuries and embarrassment. It’s also not wrong to tell a visiting friend who is using aggressive language that such things are not okay in your home.

    Kids understand more than we think – sometimes a simple explanation for an aberrant behavior, “maybe Maia does that because she wishes she had new boots like yours” or “I think it might be hard for Jacob since his Daddy moved away,” is enough to inspire your kids to think before they tease.

    It’s up to the parents primarily but once kids are spending half their days at school the teachers, administrators, assistants, custodians, and anybody else who witnesses bad behavior has a responsibility to intervene, in an age appropriate way. Sensitivity training should be required for teachers the way sexual harassment training is required in the workplace. Then it must be dealt with as if every ugly word thrown at another child was a fist. Kids are suspended for hitting with fists – they should be suspended for hitting with words as well.

  • Esme Kaye

    Is “honest comment” a euphemism for bullying on Facebook? That would be a very unfortunate misuse of the concept of honesty, IMO.

  • John

    You can simply remove the honesty box as an application. You can also block certain users on pretty much every social network site. However, I’ve also heard of a website that allows people to publicly post things about you, more or less like graffiti, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The web is a haven for anonymous flaming. People say things they would never say in person and don’t think about the consequences. Just look at any of the outrageous comments on youtube. No matter what the video is, there’s someone who’ll often post “fag” or something ridiculous like that. I’m not sure restricting web use is the answer. In a perfect world we could have automatic monitors set up (not too hard to do actually but takes funding and organization) so that adults can monitor this activity. But ultimately it’s about educating kids not to send such junk and also not to take it so seriously when they receive it. It’s interesting though, it’s like you have no reprieve anymore. It used to be you go home and then you have a break from the torment. But with the web and these kids dogging you on it, there’s no rest. I think maybe educating kids on not using apps like honesty box, teaching them how to use the privacy settings on facebook to block harmful speech, and you could write to the app creators.

  • lee

    there is something truly savage about this story, especially if the abuse is continuing after this young woman’s death.

  • lee

    I recommend people watch the recent Frontline on digital culture. It talks about how ubiquitous, even mandatory, gadgets are in the classroom with some teachers defending their use of these tools. They defend this decision as a means of preparing young people for the future. It seems like we, as taxpayers, are giving a lot of business to software/hardware companies at the expense of a deep discussion among students, face to face.

  • lee

    It seems to me that we are taking it as a given that there is shouldn’t be age restrictions for use of social media. Shouldn’t people develop the requisite social skills by practicing on LIVE people before doing it virtually?

    We could probably make a car that young people could operate, but would we allow them to use it? Don’t we restrict driving for other reasons, such as obeying rules, sharing the roadways, and the responsibilty of operating a car which is dangerous? Why don’t these rules apply to technology? Just because you can run an app doesn’t mean it is a age appropriate to do so. The military uses video game-like recruitment tools. Should we send a a 12 year old off to war because s/he is physically capable of pressing a button?

  • lee

    There should be an age restriction of facebook.

  • Constance X

    I am heartened to see “bullying” being taken seriously. I heard recently, relevant to Po Bronsen’s Nurturshock, that, when “whining” was studied, the so-called “whiner” only reported the problem 1 out of 14 times. Among the most tortured by bullies are the GIFTED; bullies enforce a rude concept of ‘equality’ that cuts achievements down to a common mean, retarding gifted individuals into underachievers. Our nation suffers! See: Jane Rand Whitmore, 1980; Leslie Margolin, 1991.

  • Doll

    People don’t understand, there will always be bullying, and there is nothing you can do to completely prevent it. That’s just the way it is, some kids are rotten.

  • http://n/a Tom Johnson

    Schools do not teach bullying! The practice of intimidating at incremental levela is seen in professional sports through to school sports, through trash talking and physical aggression on the playing field; the rink or the court. It spills over into video games and TV sports programs.

    See how the Jesuits handle it in their schools. See how the private schools handle it, and give the problem over to the public school coaches and parents associations. Let’s ger some rules and norms going so that the cost of bullying to a bully is greater than the satisfaction of bullying.

  • Courtney

    School bullying has to stop. No kid should be allowed on FB or on myspace. Teachers should be doing something about the bullying when they see it being done and i bet they didnt like being bullied when they were in school. I am 23 now ive been out of school for 5 yrs. Ive been bullied my whole life i never had a myspace til i was of age. My teachers never did anything about it and they saw it being done, I just had a baby girl and reading about this on the internet i wont let this happen to her i will stand up for her and go to the school and not let her have a FB or a myspace.

  • http://wbur.org Kiana

    well im just 12 years old and i have faced bulling everyday since the fourth grade.my teachers never say anything and some times i do think about killing myself like yesterday but i thought all the things and people i will miss so i didnt.But please adults, teachers and parents do something about this before your son or daughter comittes suicide.

  • naxima

    I been stocked by two female bullies in 7th grade who didn’t like me since 2nd grade I had my mom to help prevent the problem gettin bigger but it mad it worst when the school was involved and spoke to them. One random day in school they blocked me on the second flr stairway and attacked. I fought back and lucky someone jumped in to help me… I’ve been fighting ever since 13 fights, 2 arrest. I was always perpared to portect myself cause the bulling didn’t stop. Suiced thoughts were always on my mind or gettin those people. I learned on my own when I read how many teens kill other teens or themselves and it made me think bout why is this happen in. Youth make fun of others to look cool mostly. I feel media and child advertizing which has no restriction in the usa that follow us since birth has minipulated what we want, think we need, feelings, how we look, what we should be. Influence how we treat each other in school. Religon too. Not everyone needs to have faith cause I’m not a great follower in the bible or whatever but it has good rules when it comes to behaving and treating one another wit love in my opinion. I’m just want peopleb to be more aware about this stuff..I graduated from high school last year and a student I went to school who had major pimple problem youth would make fun of him alllllllllllll the time. He started making bombs in his house. No one knew until his friend decided to tell his parents then the cops because he was going to blow up the school where I have to sisters attending…. that would have been on the news but its sweep under the rug…the cops arrested him in school luckly wit no bombs on him…. just think it could’ve been someone u know….

  • naximanaxima

    Just want to add I don’t think a bout suicde crap anymore…. I grew learned and moved on but I still don’t like them people…. school is saddly like a mini war zone at times…. it can get ugly

  • kelly

    this is kind of rediculous. This article makes it seem like Hingham is just as bad as these other town like South Hadley. In reality, Hingham has many programs to prevent bullying and suicide such as ADL, peer facilitators, and Suicide Prevention. These programs are really working. Sure, I dont know what other schools where suicicides have occured have to offer in terms of bullying prevention, but Hingham is doing a good job in preventing it. The author of this article left out that Rene learned from her bullying incident and now has a much more positive outlook on life. She is part of ADL and has many friends. This article seems to target Hingham, when, in reality, there is no reason to target Hingham because they are doing a great job to help their students.

  • http://www.megankelleyhall.com Megan Kelley Hall

    Kiana,
    Please talk to your parents, a guidance counselor, a trusted teacher or friend if you have thoughts of suicide due to bullying. Or even email me through this link– for someone to talk to…. Please don’t allow bullies to get the best of you. Although the bullying seems insurmountable, it’s such a small part of your world (if you look at the big picture) and you will soon realize that living a wonderful life truly is the best revenge.

  • mary johnston

    I am sitting at my table weeping for this society.We have to problem solve this horrible culture of bully behavior on every level. We have to really take a look at this repulsive act of trying to harm this beautiful child even after she had hung her self. I am very disturbed.

  • Lorrie Owens

    I agree that any adult in an educational setting — teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers, custodians, etc. must intervene when they become aware of bullying in any form. But, ultimately, the responsibility lies with the children who bully and the parents who raise them.

  • http://www.bulliesguidebook.com Elizabeth Barnes

    Dear WBUR,
    Over the past five years, I have researched, designed and implemented bully-prevention programs for elementary schools in Massachusetts. Although research indicates that bully-prevention programs build resilience, improve self-esteem and reduce violence and bullying in our schools,they must be implemented on a consistent basis(twice a week, 20 minutes each day)and include administrators, teachers, students and parents in the lessons. Since the “No Child Left Behind Act of 2001″ however, many schools focus their attention on academic teaching and have fewer resources and less time to focus on anti-bullying lessons. Therefore, the responsibility to bully-proof children is solely on the parents. Research indicates that parent involvement in their child’s social and emotional development is a strong determinant in their child’s sense of self. Furthermore, consistent, open dialogue between parents and their children on specific social interests and concerns help improve communications and help children with resilience issues and self-esteem. If parents begin to teach their own children about the many forms of bullying and help them practice bully-proof techniques during their elementary school years,then their children will become more resilient, improve their self-esteem and be better prepared to deal with bullying during their Middle School and High School years.

  • http://Google Bill

    Bulling was there long before the internet was ever invented. So was PUNISHMENT. Punish the offenders when they are identified, not just for mild unkind jibes, after all many young people will try to put someone else down just to make themselves appear better.However those evil cowards who continually cause grief and hurt merely because they derive pleasure from someones pain should be made to pay a heavy price.

  • Jane

    I’m heartbroken to see that Phoebe Prince was bullied to the point where she took her life. She was new in school, so that must have made things especially hard for her. She was also beautiful and I think a lot of bullying is prompted by jealousy and kids staking out their turf. Girls can be wretched to each other. When they gang up against another girl, twist her words, mock her every move, it can feel unbearable, like there is nowhere to hide or be safe.

    Our kids need more help. Every school should have a system in place that works. Group therapy or some kind of intervention needs to be considered. There should be a well-liked teacher with the right skills and strength of personality who is an advocate for the bullied. Some bullies might even want to be stopped.

    Please, kids who are being bullied, understand that things will get better. You can count on it. I know personally how painful it is, but school is such a short time in your life–even though it seems like forever. Many people who were bullied as children and teenagers go on to do great things and lead satisfying lives. They have interests and hobbies and jobs or careers. They find partners who love them. They have children. They have their own households and pets. They have autonomy and choose their friends. What you are experiencing now will soon stop. You have so much to offer. The bullies are not special, they are mean or bored or hate themselves or feel so boxed in by school and adolescence that they lash out at others. They bully those who are different from the herd or who are exceptional in some way. You have attributes they secretly admire. I was bullied because I had red hair and was “too feminine.” My husband finds it absurd that anyone could think that those things were a problem! He was bullied because he was slow to mature, until at fifteen his voice changed and in the next year and a half he shot up to 6’3″. He is quiet, artistic and interested in science. When I met him I thought he was the handsomest and smartest man I had ever met.

    You will get past this. I did, my husband did, and we have a good life. Our daughter was also bullied verbally and physically during middle school. The school was hopeless about addressing it. She is highly creative and also learned differently. She is a professional now who travels the world with work and the bullies from middle school are now contacting her and trying to be her friends. She chooses to ignore them. She has found some good friends who she enjoys and trusts. One thing that happened as a result of her being bullied–she has no use for unkind people and will not put up with any nonsense. I don’t mean to imply that life beyond school is perfect and without problems for anyone–just that you will have more choices and the bullies frequently make the wrong ones.

    Just get through school, do not be afraid to talk to a sympathetic adult and tell them you need assistance in dealing with a situation. You are not alone in this. It goes on in schools everywhere. It is temporary, but at your age I know that is hard to believe. Just hang on. The roller coaster always slows down and stops and then you step out of the “box” and walk on your way. Keep some goals in mind, finish school, read some good books, and enjoy whatever music you like but don’t go too dark with it. Keep a journal or work on whatever interests you. Another thing, many kids who are bullied find themselves more comfortable with adults. If you find yourself sitting around with your parents and their friends on a Saturday night and discover you are actually having fun, just go with it. When you are an adult you will have friends of all ages.

    I know it is hard to handle the anger and sometimes it is so hard to get up and go to school in the morning. But you will be free of this eventually. My experience is that bullying is rare in college or trade school. By then, most bullies have learned or discovered the hard way that bullies are jerks. Be your own person and you’ll be clear of this before you know it!

  • victoria

    this is stupid no one should kill themself cause of what other people think and it up to the parents to do something

  • Chris

    What a tragic story… my condolences to Rene Lapore’s family and friends.

    Short of pulling online applications entirely, developers can already limit bullying by performing advanced semantic analysis of network traffic in real-time (see NarusInsight, for instance, the most recent private-sector iteration of the FBI’s Carnivore program). Ubiquitous social network providers really need to be called to task about why they’re not implementing available semantic content filters.

    I hope that we’ll eventually see a successfully prosecuted lawsuit involving the developers of a social application (though current precedents are not encouraging – “guns don’t kill people,” etc).

    As always, it’s only when “real” money becomes part of the equation or, in this case, the “development cost”, that effective changes are made.

  • joe

    SOCIALLY INEPT AND GETTING WORSE. Today’s technology also doesn’t help kids become MORE socially adept, but worse. Look at kids who breakups via text. You think this will get better? I don’t.

  • Seth

    In today’s society bullying can not be accepted. Most responsible companies today, require that employees annually take courses to insure a threat free work place.
    Obviously, a concept that this school disctrict doesn’t understand. And I find it interesting that some of those who believe the world revolves around the kids in school, are in turn the same ones who will say that bullying has been around for ever and find it acceptable. Any society that finds what happened here acceptable, is fatally flawed. One blogger made a statement referring to “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” this case proves the statement.

    What happened here is unacceptable, period. And to make sure that message is understood, any and all school employees who were aware, at any level, that this was going on, should be terminated and banned from working in any educational system, anywhere, permanently.

  • Julie

    I wonder if the reason some teachers and staff fail to intervene is that they are afraid of the cliques and bullies themselves. Or (and?) they feel that they won’t get any backup from the school administration. Are there any teachers out there to comment?

  • Sharlotte Cisco

    I grew up Massachusetts. I lived in a small town on the north shore. A pretty new girl moved because of her father’s job. She made the cheer leading team and was beaten up by several girls who didn’t make the team. The parents of those girls were extremely defensive and felt their daughter’s had a right to do this and this was just part of growing up.

    What kind of kids do we raise when a parent stands by and allows and practically encourages their children to treat other people this way? The girls who were doing the bullying – where were their parents? Why don’t they care that their daughters were engaging in this? Did they ignore it, turn away or approve of the bullying because they would do the same thing if they despised another woman.

  • Matt

    [...]The parents of those girls were extremely defensive and felt their daughter’s had a right to do this and this was just part of growing up. [...]

    If their parents and the school don’t do anything it’s time to take matters into your own hands. If anyone ever did that to my daughter, I’d beat the everlovin’ crap out of them. I mean beat them until their brains oozed out onto the street. There would be no witnesses.

  • Liam

    I am glad that the State has moved on this matter. Now, we shall wait and see. The Bullies should be made an example of and their parents.

  • michelle

    It makes me sick to hear of parents of bullies who think that it’s alright for their brat to pick on others with low self esteem. Bullying was going on when I was a kid in the 60′s and 70′s. I was bullied , then I faught back and darn near became a bully myself until my mother smacked me up side the head. Most of the bullies I had to deal with were the kids in sports. My daughter was a fastpitch softball player, {the pitcher} and she saw all kinds of bullying going on. She was also bullied until she “slammed ‘ into a few of them and knocked them down.
    Bullying is not going to go away because of stupid parents who REFUSE to see that little sissy or little johnny is a pain in the hind end that needs the crap knocked out of her/him. Some parents have more money than they have sense. If I ever saw one of my kids being a bully, I would end like real quick. NO one should be intimidated to the point of suicide. It isn’t just in school, it goes on in the work place. The vultures just sit around and look for people to gang up on. Well that’s Ok, there is a hell. One day they will be there.

  • Johnette Tolliver

    Maybe the school should read about the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program and try to establish a similar program. According to the studies that were conducted, the program really works and helped alleviate a lot of the bullying problems. Go to http://www.colorado.edu/cspv/blueprints/modelprograms/BPP.html.

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  • Lori

    Must stop bullying. I had bad experienced that 4 people bullied me. I wanted to suicide and die but I did not. I did hurt myself from stabbed with scissor on my arm. They sent me into mental health for assessment. I will go to see counselor.

    • Bharri1226

      I don’t think teenagers and preteens conceive the finality of death. An attempt is a cry for help. Anyone entertaining the idea, please don’t be ashamed to get counseling. Suicide may end the suffering of a temporary problem, given time a situation that seems overbearing will blow over like a winter storm and life will go on and you will be happy again if you give it time. Suicide does so much damage to families and loved ones left behind, their pain never ends and the anger and hurt and questions are always going to haunt those left behind. “What if” will begin a thought every day for the rest of their lives. I lost my brother to suicide March 18,2011: that date is burned into my brain. I cannot escape the pain and suicide crossed my mind but how could I put my family through that knowing how insuferable it is for me. Please get help don’t be afraid. Give life a chance it will get better God has a pupose for each and everyone of us , so you do matter.

  • Nicole Marie

    Bullying really needs to go away!. I had bad experiences between my 4th and 11th grade school years when people, even my own friends, people I raerly ever saw and/or talked to, bullied me for how I looked,acted,dressed, and liked. I was sent to think that I didnt matter anymore, I thought of dying but I never truly did anything extream. I clawed my arms,neck, and hands whenever I got hurt. I was sent to thearpy for at least 3 years around my sophmore year I began to claw myself less and less. But sometimes when I get bullied at school it’s hard to reist the urge to “not claw”. Anyways bullying is just taking lives from people that dont even deserve it, it’s ridiculous, if you are bullying someone just for fun, PLEASE find a new and less hurtful hobbie!

    R.I.P all those people who have committed suiced due to the cause of bullying!!

  • Nekedo

    No, they really aren’t.
    I suffered 12 years in the Hingham School System, and was turned away by teachers and principals because they couldn’t stop my tormentors. I was harassed for liking different things and not wearing A&F or Uggs. G-Mac told me I was “overreacting” when I was sent home crying every week due to this torture. Who the hell are YOU to say “they’re helping”? You’re probably just a parent who knows NOTHING about what actually goes on in those schools. My mother and my third grade teacher were my only allies. This is straight from the mouth of a former student: Hingham does a dreadful job of dealing with bullies. They would rather sweep it all under a rug, and will ignore complaints when the antagonizer is from a well-known family.

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  • Kenxavia

    say bi bi 2 bullying

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