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March 30, 2010

What would be the right kind of sentence for teen bullies now prosecuted for classmate's suicide?

The question in the title of this post is inspired by this notable story in today's New York Times, which is headlined "9 Teenagers Are Charged After Classmate’s Suicide." Here are some of the details:

It is not clear what some students at South Hadley High School expected to achieve by subjecting a freshman to the relentless taunting described by a prosecutor and classmates. Certainly not her suicide. And certainly not the multiple felony indictments announced on Monday against several students at the Massachusetts school.

The prosecutor brought charges Monday against nine teenagers, saying their taunting and physical threats were beyond the pale and led the freshman, Phoebe Prince, to hang herself from a stairwell in January. The charges were an unusually sharp legal response to the problem of adolescent bullying, which is increasingly conducted in cyberspace as well as in the schoolyard and has drawn growing concern from parents, educators and lawmakers.

In the uproar around the suicides of Ms. Prince, 15, and an 11-year-old boy subjected to harassment in nearby Springfield last year, the Massachusetts legislature stepped up work on an anti-bullying law that is now near passage. The law would require school staff members to report suspected incidents and principals to investigate them. It would also demand that schools teach about the dangers of bullying. Forty-one other states have anti-bullying laws of varying strength.

In the Prince case, two boys and four girls, ages 16 to 18, face a different mix of felony charges that include statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly. Three younger girls have been charged in juvenile court, Elizabeth D. Scheibel, the Northwestern district attorney, said at a news conference in Northampton, Mass.

Appearing with state and local police officials on Monday, Ms. Scheibel said that Ms. Prince’s suicide came after nearly three months of severe taunting and physical threats by a cluster of fellow students. “The investigation revealed relentless activities directed toward Phoebe to make it impossible for her to stay at school,” Ms. Scheibel said. The conduct of those charged, she said, “far exceeded the limits of normal teenage relationship-related quarrels.”...

On Jan. 14, the investigation found, students abused her in the school library, the lunchroom and the hallways and threw a canned drink at her as she walked home. Her sister found her hanging from a stairwell at home, still in her school clothes, at 4:30 p.m.

Some of the students plotted against Ms. Prince on the Internet, using social networking sites, but the main abuse was at school, the prosecutor said. “The actions of these students were primarily conducted on school grounds during school hours and while school was in session,” Ms. Scheibel said.

Ms. Scheibel declined to provide details about the charges of statutory rape against two boys, but experts said those charges could mean that the boys had sex with Ms. Prince when she was under age.

Legal experts said they were not aware of other cases in which students faced serious criminal charges for harassing a fellow student, but added that the circumstances in this case appeared to be extreme and that juvenile charges were usually kept private....

A South Hadley parent, Mitch Brouillard, who said his daughter Rebecca had been bullied by one of the girls charged in Ms. Prince’s death, said he was pleased that charges were brought. One of the students was charged separately in a case involving his daughter. “My daughter was bullied for three years, and we continually went to the administration and we really got no satisfaction,” Mr. Brouillard said, adding, “I was offered an apology a few weeks ago that they should have handled it differently.”

Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer in Cambridge, Mass., who has argued that proposed cyberbullying laws are too vague and a threat to free speech, said that he thought the charges announced Monday would pass legal muster. The sorts of acts of harassment and stalking claimed in the charges were wrong under state law, Mr. Silverglate said, but a question would be whether they were serious enough to constitute criminal violations, as opposed to civil ones. “There is a higher threshold of proof of outrageous conduct needed to reach the level of a criminal cause of action, in comparison to the lower level of outrageousness needed to prove a civil violation,” he said.

March 30, 2010 at 10:37 AM | Permalink

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In Japan, bullying causes much teen suicide. It takes another form than here, but is very devastating to the target. It consists of shunning. That is apparently unbearable to Japaneses kids. Under this Mass crew, not saying hello to a kid may become actionable and may result in prison time.

The suicide is a voluntary, intentional act. Without it, the bullying would have resulted in school discipline, not criminal charges. The defendants are being charged because of the act of another. Even if one had told the suicider, kill yourself, it would change nothing.One is being scapegoated for the act of another, in violation of the right to a fair hearing.

On the civil side, does the school have a duty to maintain a harassment free zone for all students? The school has a duty to provide an education, not physical security services. The concept of a hostile environment is a feminist tool to intimidate males, so that they cannot even look at a female without getting fired, sort of Chinese Virgin Empress style. Any parent or lawyer bringing such claims should be driven out of town, because they are just pretextually trying to plunder the school and the taxpayer.

The proper remedy for the victim of harassment, bullying? A smart slap to the face of the offending pig. If you want a legal remedy, get a protection order against the harassers. Sue the harassers for assault or discrimination, but not the school.

Most catastrophes are multi-factorial. This suicide likely had many causes. Bullying was likely a weak one among many.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 30, 2010 11:52:23 AM

i think at a very very least a charge of involtarly manslauter should apply.

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 30, 2010 1:22:20 PM

Since this is a rather outside-the-box theory of criminal liability, why not an outside-the-box type of punishment, like a "shaming" punishment of some kind? If they are subject to state-sanctioned shame and opprobrium, perhaps they will be able to put themselves in the victim's shoes.

Posted by: Robb | Mar 30, 2010 2:45:44 PM

How about waiting until the facts are adduced in court? Depending on what they show, this could be anything from political correctness run amok to murder.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 30, 2010 3:29:07 PM

This seems like a case where a real deterrent effect could be realized through a publicized sentence that imposes some significant hardship. The sort of anti-bullying law described seems fairly ineffective to me; I highly doubt these offenders (or most high school students for that matter) would be swayed by the school teaching them about bullying, nor do I think teachers and administrators will be terribly effective in preventing this behavior. These teens aren't embroiled in other criminal activity, are middle class, popular, and probably have decent future prospects all things considered. Still, they feel entitled to engage in very focused, reprehensible activity that unfortunately occurs all too often in some degree. I suspect the threat of having those future prospects dashed would cause this type of teen to think twice.

Bullying is inevitable but this behavior seems beyond the realm of what is normal. Certainly suicide is complicated, but the criminal law makes all sorts of distinctions based on fortuities. I think basing a tougher sentence on the perhaps unlikely result of this crime is justified to make an example of these teens. I would hardly suggest charging them with homicide, but they should be held accountable for something. For a fuller account, which informs my judgment, see:

http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/01/24/the_untouchable_mean_girls/

Posted by: RM | Mar 30, 2010 4:02:07 PM

The family is likely the biggest factor in suicide. They likely had the best knowledge about her condition. They had the best opportunity to get her treated. They had the most power to supervise her. They had the most power to inflict despair on her by their expressions of negative emotions against her. They may have had the knowledge of the genetic predisposition to suicide. We do not know if she was an abuse victim.

The immature utterances of a bunch of knuckleheads pales in suicide power compared to those factors. If the prosecutor failed to have these factors evaluated, including any finding of intoxicating substances in the body, the feminist lawyer must resign her position. This is a pretextual opportunity to advance the feminist orthodoxy that males are the cause of all female problems, however compelling factors closer to home might be.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Mar 30, 2010 5:34:37 PM

Bill,

I don't know that it is exactly a case of "PC run amok" any more than the sexting cases are, but it is certainly possible that this is an abuse of prosecutorial discretion. As far as the statutory rape charges go, if the accusation is that the boys had sex with her wello, I'm generally opposed to Romeo and Juliet prosecutions. As for harassment and bullying, that's another matter. Still, it would have been most proper for the school to intervene in the matter before events spiraled out of control, which I assume is the objective of the anti-bullying legislation. I don't think it merits criminal sanction after the fact, because the girl committed suicide. Which brings me to the last point: On what basis do you think any facts adduced at the pretrial stage will support a murder charge? All of the evidence points to a suicide. Is it your contention that she did not take her own life?

Posted by: Alec | Mar 31, 2010 10:05:33 AM

i have to agree with SC on this statement

"The family is likely the biggest factor in suicide."

I know if this had been my child. I WOULD have been at that school and i would have shown those little twirps that there are bigger meaner things in the world. That you might think you are big and bad. but there is ALWAYS someone a little more meaner and badder.

and god help any teacher dumb enough to get in my way. Since from what i've read they completely abrogated their role in manageing and controlling the students in this case.

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 31, 2010 11:49:17 AM

How can bullying be morphed into a homicide? Suicide is usually the result of clinical depression. Yes, there may be a trigger, but I fear the day we investigate every suicide to determine who is to blame so that criminal charges can be brought against the thoughtless bullying offending party.

Bullying goes on in the work place, marriages, social groups etc. What part of human behavior should not be addressed by the law? Lawyers are not loved because they are so needed.

Posted by: beth | Mar 31, 2010 12:10:10 PM

I hated kids like these 9 in high school--the pompous, mean-spirited megalomaniacs who got off by hurting innocent students who had the misfortune of not having a C-cup or the ability to dribble a ball. So in this sense, I feel a strong desire, even a hope, to see these kids hit with a wrecking ball, as a wake up call to other self-entitled brats that if they want to play with others' lives, they'll have to ante theirs as well. I'm not saying it's right or just--I'm just saying it is.

I honestly believe that the reason why murder charges are being brought in this case has less to do with criminal liability than the fact that there are a lot more of me than there are of the waste of oxygen exemplified by these nine. In that sense, I think this case is more one of schadenfreude than it is justice for the deceased.

Posted by: Res ipsa | Mar 31, 2010 12:32:04 PM

Is the family pursuing any type of civil liability against the school or students? It seems the school was negligent in allowing the behavior by some of its students to continue and the students could be pursued under a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. While I do not oppose criminal liability in extreme cases, which this seems to be, it seems the criminal law should be turned to only as a last resort. (Though since there are no facts related to Statutory Rape, I would have to say that it seems that charge would be justified regardless of bullying behavior of the students.)

Posted by: Amanda | Mar 31, 2010 2:21:10 PM

Let's be clear here. The state has not brought a murder/homiside/manslaughter (or the like) charge. The high schoolers are charged with "statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly." All of this conduct is INDEPENDENT of the suicide. While the prosecution may be motivated by the suicide, in no way does the success of the prosecution depend on the fact that the victim committed suicide. If the conduct of the high schoolers satisfy the elements of "rape, violation of civil rights w/ bodily injury, harassment, stalking," then that conduct is legitimately punished.

Posted by: anon | Mar 31, 2010 6:15:31 PM

i'm with you res ipsa! i'm short; fat and have had to wear glasses since i was 9. i've been there with the same neanderthall idiots as this child. but i came from a family where you stood up for your self. funny once i arranged to be on the baseball field and accidently break the arm of two of my biggest pests! did it stop!

Posted by: rodsmith | Mar 31, 2010 7:07:47 PM

I disagree. The fact that you can be punished with distribution of drugs for passing a joint doesn't necessarily justify that charge. I think most of us agree that the sexting cases don't justify child pornography charges, even though those teenagers are technically culpable of offenses that would merit significant prison time for adults. And I don't see why the same should not be true for stalking, etc. should be any different. There's an element of discretion that the prosecutor has here. It can be abused.

Posted by: Alec | Mar 31, 2010 7:09:12 PM

You're correct, of course anon. I guess I just question if any of these charges would be considered if there had not been a suicide.

Posted by: beth | Mar 31, 2010 9:52:35 PM

Alec --

" Is it your contention that she did not take her own life?"

If it were I would say so.

"There's an element of discretion that the prosecutor has here. It can be abused."

No doubt about that. Of course it can be abused in both directions. A prosecutor can bring the max in these teen sexting episodes (which happens, but not very much). On the other hand, they can give away the store or swallow the gun to play to the crowd, or curry favor with a pro-defense judge, or to gain popularity with defense counsel to create a smoother path to getting hired into a defense firm once the low-paying government gig has run its course.

If it's actually discretion the prosecutor is exercising, it is not all going to run in one direction, despite the defense's desire for a strictly one-way street.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 1, 2010 9:48:31 AM

I was doing research on an unrelated issue and came upon something that reminded me of the issue in the post. Under NY law, it is second degree manslaughter to "intentionally cause[] or aid[] another person to commit suicide." § 125.15(3). I doubt the defendants in this case "intentionally" caused the suicide, but I nonetheless found it interesting.

Posted by: DEJ | Apr 2, 2010 12:37:13 PM

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