Early last year, Phoebe Prince — a 15 year old who had recently moved to the U.S. from Ireland — committed suicide after relentless bullying by her schoolmates. Three 16-year-old girls — Ashley Longe, Flannery Mullins and Sharon Chanon Velazquez — were charged as youthful offenders with felonies including violation of civil rights, while three other students — Sean Mulveyhill, 17, Kayla Narey, 17, and Austin Renaud, 18 — were charged as adults in the incident. All the cases were settled with only probation for the accused, except for Renaud, whose charge of statutory rape was dropped entirely.
It’s important to remind people of the perpetrators of the bullying in this case, because that is one simple way to stop bullying. Show people that bullying has life-long consequences that will follow you forever, especially when such bullying leads a person to such hopelessness that they believe the only way out is to take their own lives.
In Massachusetts, this tragedy led to the passing of an anti-bullying law that supposedly made schools safer and put an end to the worst cases of bullying. (We don’t know how effective it is, as I couldn’t find any outcome data associated with the new law.)
Sadly, apparently the rest of the country hasn’t gotten the message yet. Word out of Ridge Farm, Illinois yesterday was that a 10-year-old Irish American girl named Ashlynn Conner apparently committed suicide last week due to relentless bullying from schoolmates.
Worse yet — Illinois has had an anti-bullying law on the books since 2001.
Ashlynn’s mom, Stacy Conner, spoke out about the incident:
“They’d call her a slut,” said a tearful Conner,” Stacy Conner told the TV station. “Ashlynn’s ugly. She’s fat.”
Just last Thursday Ashlynn asked her mother to remove her from the fifth grade at Ridge Farm Elementary and home school her. Single mum Stacy said she would discuss it with the principal on Monday and less than 24 hours later, Ashlynn’s sister Michaila found her dead in a closet.
“The taunting has been happening for years, I didn’t know what to do. We had spoken about bullying but she never told her how bad it was.
“I thought my kids were strong. That my words to them for guidance and advice would have more weight than what these kids were saying. I was wrong.”
Here’s what Dr. Claire McCarthy had to say about bullying in Massachusetts:
Maybe the most important thing we’ve done—or, rather, that Phoebe has done—is raise awareness of bullying. People are talking about it. Antennae are up. Teachers are watching, parents are asking questions, doctors are asking questions. Children are beginning to understand that they can do something when they’re being bullied—or when they see bullying happening. […]
Bullying is something we need to take seriously, because it can have long-lasting effects on both the victim and the bully. In fact, in 2001 the American Medical Association recognized bullying as a public health problem. It’s linked to mental health problems, school failure, substance abuse and even future criminal behavior. This isn’t just about schoolyard fights. This is about the future of our children.
Dr. Peter Raffalli, a neurologist at Children’s Hospital Boston, has these suggestions for parents about bullying (courtesy of Dr. McCarthy):
- If you notice a change in your child’s behavior—such as moodiness, trouble sleeping, or a drop in grades—think of bullying as a possible cause.
- When asking your child about bullying, don’t forget to ask about cyberbullying.
- If you have young children, get involved with their Internet life early, and stay involved. Waiting until middle school is too late—by then, your child may see it as an invasion of privacy.
- Make sure your child knows that bullying is never the victim’s fault.
- If your child is being bullied at school, work with the school to get as much information as you can about the bullying. The more they know, the more they can help. Make sure the school assigns a “safe adult” for your child, someone confidential they can turn to—and make sure you know what the school is doing to keep your child safe.
Obviously, bullying won’t go away just because some old white men in your state’s legislature decide to pass a new law. Laws are nothing without enforcement, and a dedicated effort to put the law into meaningful use with constant continuing education and reminders about the impact of bullying.
We don’t just need more awareness among adults — we need teens to know that when you are bullied, you can get help. There are answers. There can be an end to the bullying that doesn’t mean the end of your life.
What to Do When You’re Bullied
I know sometimes a situation can seem hopeless — like there’s no way out. I’m telling you, if you’re being bullied or know someone who is, there is a way out.
You have to be strong, however, and realize that one of the main reasons bullies continue to bully is because of the reinforcement they get for doing so. When you respond to bullying with any action other than walking away, you’re unintentionally reinforcing the bullying. If you need to, go find a safe place to hang out for awhile, whether it’s a teacher’s classroom, the library, or somewhere else in school that is your go-to hangout.
Sometimes, you can’t walk away. Maybe the bully is physically assaulting you. Protect yourself until you can get away, then tell an adult that can take action and that you trust — like a guidance counselor, a school psychologist or nurse, a teacher, an assistant principal or the principal, or even your mom or dad (or a friend’s mom or dad, if that’s easier). Once adults know about the bullying, they should be able to step in and take action to stop the other kid(s) from bullying.
If that only makes the bullying worse (as in some cases, it can), you need to once again tell the same adults, and let them know the situation has escalated. Emphasize the seriousness of the situation, and how it’s really stressing you our and making you feel. Be honest, and I know this is hard — be open. Let someone know how you’re really feeling about all this. (I suspect one of the reasons for suicide after severe bullying is because no one really knew how bad the situation was for the teen.)
There is often safety in numbers, so stay with your group of friends as much as possible. If you’re a loner, well, you can always change that by becoming a little bit less of a loner and finding some school-based activities that put you in the presence of others with similar attitudes and interests. Remember, you are not set in stone just because of a way you’ve behaved or acted before today — you can always change, adopt a new attitude, or pursue a new interest.
Our hearts go out to the Conner family over this tragedy. I hope it serves as a reminder of the serious consequences bullying can have, even if nothing was “meant” by it.
Read the full story: Irish American girl commits suicide in repeat of Phoebe Prince storyline
Learn more about bullying: Stop Bullying Now government website