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Three teenagers charged in relation to the death of a South Hadley student are scheduled to appear in court next Tuesday. They're among nine teens facing criminal charges in what prosecutors call the "incessant bullying" of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide in January.
Because criminal charges are rarely filed in bullying cases — especially against students — the charges put forth by Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel are significant.
Elizabeth Englander, the founder of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, which provides anti-bullying training and workshops in schools across the state, believes that the South Hadley charges could, in certain instances, lead to similar indictments in the future.
"This may give district attorneys more of a motive now, or a precedent to press charges," Englander said to WBUR. "But I'm going to guess that, generally speaking, unless it's a really egregious case, most of the time the criminal justice system is going to want to deal with bullying as an opportunity for rehabilitation or education rather than prosecuting kids."
"When we’re defensive about it, when we deny that (bullying) happens, it’s really the kids who suffer."-- Elizabeth Englander
And indeed, Englander sees South Hadley's tragedy as an exceptional, "egregious case."
"There was a growing sense in the community that the behavior of the children who were bullying Phoebe Prince was maybe so egregious that it really should have been detected and stopped," said Englander. "I think that was the impetus that really got the district attorney to look at the problem more closely."
Scheibel's charges come on the heels of anti-bullying legislation on Beacon Hill. Englander says the school would have benefited from more established anti-bullying procedures.
"If you don't have a procedure in place, then what can happen is something can be common knowledge, it can be reported, but we don't know who it was reported to, and we don't know what they did with that information," said Englander. "So if schools have a very standard procedure, they know exactly who to bring that report to, and everyone would know what was going to be done."
She says that standardizing procedures will allow fewer student victims to fall through the cracks. She also says schools should adopt a best-practices approach, learning from one another.
"We have to get over the sense that it doesn't happen in our school and in our community," Englander said. "We need to begin talking more about the characteristics of schools that do a really good job in dealing with this and see if we can apply those characteristics across the board, not to be so emotionally defensive about the issue. Because when we're defensive about it, when we deny that it happens, it's really the kids who suffer."
Englander says that her organization has seen an exponential increase in the anti-bullying education programs it offers. But she warns that rules and procedures alone won't do enough to prevent bullying.
"(Preventing bullying) really has to become part of the school climate and the school culture," she said. "And we need to help schools more with it. We definitely need to."
This program aired on April 1, 2010.
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