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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