Bullies and bystanders

Ben Clarke Political Consultant and Speechwriter
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I should say at the outset that I was a brutish brother at times growing up. The second eldest of five children, I made the lives of the other four—at some point—downright miserable.

There was the time I super-glued my older sister’s head to the pillow; the time I purchased a fireproof safe simply to lock away all of my sister’s socks so she couldn’t find them; the time I covertly kicked out the back leg of my sister Annie, sending her careening into a Macy’s display case at the Berkshire Mall; and, a classic, the time I auctioned off my brother’s kidney on eBay.

That was last week. (And congratulations to winning bidder Huang-Fu Zhao of Xinjiang Province, China.)

One day, in a fit of just rage, my sister Abby hauled off and kicked me in the groin, rendering me a pretty nimble soprano. I may or may not be physically able to have children.

I would like to think I have matured with age.

No expert on the ways of angelic youth, I was still sad to read the story of Phoebe Prince. A 15-year-old standout student recently emigrated from Ireland; she was a freshman at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. New to these shores last summer, she was, her parents said, “excited to experience America.”

We should all be troubled by what she experienced.

She was, in a word, brutalized. Verbally. Physically. In the high school hallways and in cyberspace, she was relentlessly ridiculed and regularly bullied. One student went so far as to suggest she just go and hang herself.

She did.

Some falsehearted students still weren’t satisfied. In the days following Phoebe’s death, they allegedly took it upon themselves to land a few parting jabs on a Facebook memorial page. The taunting comments had to be removed.

What makes a kid act in such a manner that he or she would drive another to do such a thing? Think about it … last summer, an amiable young girl boarded a plane with her family bound for a new country. A new life. She was surely nervous, but undoubtedly buttressed by assurances from her parents that she would make new friends. All would be well.

Mere months later she walked home and decided, at 15 years of age, that her life was not worth living.

It is cathartic to read of such incidents and feign outrage. I have seen experts pontificate on this bullying plague. They express moral outrage and mass disgust. They say the incident is heartbreaking. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. We can’t always prevent them. But this, this, I would like to think, we can prevent.

At the moment, 41 states and the District of Columbia have anti-bullying measures. In addition, 23 have statutes against cyberbullying; Massachusetts took a step toward joining those states a few weeks ago, when the State Senate passed a measure to crack down on this epidemic. The bill was unanimously passed in the Senate, and soon after unanimously passed in the House.

Among the provisions in the bill:

  • A ban on bullying and cyberbullying
  • Prohibition of retaliation against an individual who reports bullying
  • Requirement of schools in MA to develop bullying prevention programs
  • Requirement of staff to report bullying to the principal
  • Requirement of principals to investigate and take appropriate action

A good start.

Over the course of ten years involved in Washington politics, I have found that some laws seem to reflect hopelessness; here’s one that can inspire hope. If passed. If implemented. If done right. This law can reinforce good parents, good teachers, and good principals who try to do right by children.

Or good coaches. In fact, there’s an idea. Sports. A good athlete is often inoculated from bullying. Their athletic prowess provides social cover. Tell team captains and players they’re off the team for committing or turning a blind eye to bullying, and something tells me they will walk the halls with a more empathetic eye.

It has been said that, if we are surrounded by the trivial and the vicious, it is all too easy to make our peace with it.

Let us not accept such a fate. To date, we have failed. We must all accept some responsibility for the America Phoebe Prince ‘experienced.’

Ben Clarke has worked in Washington, D.C. as a political consultant and speechwriter for the past 10 years.  During that period, he has served as chief political writer for GOP strategist Frank Luntz, speechwriter for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and communications consultant for Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign.  He has worked on countless House, Senate and Gubernatorial campaigns across America.  He has also worked on or covered campaigns in Ukraine, Georgia and Greece.