Bullied to Death
As a group of teens in Massachusetts face landmark charges for harassing 15-year-old Phoebe Prince so brutally she committed suicide, Lucinda Franks speaks to teen bullies and a pioneering teacher about why kids torment peers.
The indictment of the students yesterday who bullied a South Hadley, Massachusetts, girl into committing suicide is an almost unprecedented move by prosecutors against a phenomenon that has overpowered the nation’s schools. The South Hadley district attorney, Elizabeth Scheibel, not only charged nine girls and boys between the ages of 16 and 18 with crimes ranging from assault with a dangerous weapon to statutory rape, she implicated the South Hadley school staff, who simply watched as Phoebe Prince, a beautiful 15-year-old who emigrated with her family from Ireland, was brutally harassed for some six months.
In this recent rash of teen suicides, this was the first time bullies, who had mercilessly tortured their marks, have been brought into the adult world to be indicted. The only exception has been beatings that left the victim in critical condition, such as the recent atrocities that took place in South Florida: Fifteen-year-old Wayne Treacy was indicted for attempted murder after he beat 15-year-old Josie Lou Ratley into a coma over a dispute carried on over escalating text messages. Ironically, the message that set the boy off referred to his brother, who had committed suicide.
Following Debbie Johnston’s appearance on television to tell her son’s story, Robert instigated a series of instant messages with his friends entitled “Boo-Hoo Your Son Is Dead.”
Bullies have been proliferating in middle and high schools across the country, trespassing on the inalienable rights of children and committing with impunity what would be criminal behavior in the adult world. Unlike the comparatively mellow and transitory bullies of old—a normal part of childhood—they can beat their peers so severely they end up in hospitals, and spread false rumors on Web sites like Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace that destroy friendships and affect the ability of the victims to get future jobs. They are more than bullies: Persecutors, often coalescing into large groups to relentlessly harass their victims for months or years, often driving sensitive, talented, and often A-students with untroubled histories to commit suicide.
• Lucinda Franks: Life and Death at Suicide High “This is a viral generation,” says Michael Lieberman, counsel to the Anti-Defamation League in Washington, which has been working to pass anti-bullying laws. “There has been an explosion of cyberbullying and students can blithely and anonymously destroy the lives of innocent scapegoats. Principals, teachers, have been stymied. Something has to be done about it.”
But school officials are often complicit in the teen suicides. They ignore it because they are powerless to stop it or do not consider it their role. Some are even passionately opposed to the new state anti-bullying laws, which they consider a challenge to their authority. In fact, some do not believe that "bullying" exists at all. Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committee, said, “There’s a fine line between teasing and bullying. Look, you and I pass each other on the street and I say, ‘Give me your lunch money or I’ll throw you down the stairs.’ Now how do you tell whether I’m teasing or not.” When asked about the suicide of Phoebe Prince, Koocher said he did not know about the affair to comment.
But what about the bully who is causing such havoc in many schools? The Daily Beast interviewed several adolescents who describe themselves as bullies or former bullies, some of whom attend a special school called The Alternative Learning Center (ALC) in Fort Meyers, Florida. They shared their thoughts on who they were and how they had gotten there:
“I don’t believe in bullying,” said Shaylinn See, a soft-spoken cheerful ninth grader from Bonita Springs, Florida, who slammed another student against the brick schoolyard wall and punched her in the face. “Except when someone deserves it. Like this girl was having sex with my boyfriend.”
Shaylinn and other interviewees said that they had been enlightened and deeply affected when they became part of an ALC therapy class taught by Debra Johnston; they heard how her son, Jeffrey, committed suicide in 2005 after being viciously cyberbullied at the Trafalgar Middle School in Cape Coral, Florida.
In the two years leading up to her son’s death, Johnston was teaching across the hall from Jeffrey’s classroom and watched him being tormented. She went to school officials many times but, she says, they “essentially blew me off.”
One boy in particular, Robert Roemmick, would push Jeffrey into lockers or take his books. But his worst act was to hack into a game Web site created by Jeffrey and call him “a faggot,” “a creep,” “a stalker,” and “a cryptkeeper.”
“All his friends and acquaintances saw it and some believed it,” Debbie Johnston recalls. “He became isolated and spurned at a time when children rely not on their parents for their self-worth but on their peers' influence. Eventually, Jeff just couldn’t take it anymore.”
After Jeff shot himself to death, Robert disappeared from the Internet for about two weeks. When he began to post comments on various Web sites again, his friends asked where he had been. Robert wrote: “Something has died.”
Then Robert harassed Jeffrey’s mother by creating Web sites about her, even two years after her son’s death. In April 2007, following Johnston’s appearance on television to tell her son’s story, Robert instigated a series of instant messages with his friends entitled “Boo-Hoo Your Son is Dead.” The Daily Beast obtained a print out of some of the comments on the site:
“She’s such a hypocrite, I hope one of the people she blames offs themselves and blames her in the suicide note.” – Jessica Spic-owitz
“I bet she’s getting paid.” – Backstage Bitch
“omg, what a publicity whore. Was she crying again, because if she was, I think its bullshit…I’d recognize her nerdy son anywhere, even in hell…they practically accused us of killing her son, but she actually did. She killed her son.. - Desperate Houseboy
“Um, earth to the mother of the son that killed himself…WTF, why were you letting him stay up until 3 am online anyways…on school days?” - Unsigned
“you know, I just think about all of it.,,and I look at his pic, and I just have to laugh at how pathetic that whole family is.” - Unsigned
When Debbie Johnston found out about the site, she called Robert’s parents to tell them about it. She said Robert’s father got on the phone and said that if she ever accused his boy again, he would slap a libel suit on her. Not long afterward, Robert turned around and publicly confessed that he called Jeff names and was “sorry for his passing, but not for why I did it.”
“In the school with rich kids,” Shaylinn See says, “the girls who are pretty never get touched. But if you don’t wear Abercrombie and have your hair bleached at a beauty salon, if you just wear a dorky T-shirt, the whole class laughs at you.”
Robert Roemmick is now 19, making pastries for a living, and declined to be interviewed for this article, but he emailed to say, “He [Jeff] is not what everyone has made him out to be.” He wrote that he would not grant an interview because “I am done with this section of my life...people who DIDN’T EVEN KNOW ME were harassing me through MySpace and Facebook.”
In the wake of Jeffrey’s suicide, Debbie Johnston vowed to learn how to stop the school tyrants. After his death, she signed on to teach at ALC, where many of the students had criminal records. “I wanted to work with the bullies, understand what would stop them, and I discovered that there was only one way to change their behavior,” she says. “If there is peer interference, a bully will stop immediately.”
Take Johnston’s student Poptart. “He was six feet and bound for the NBA but he was also the head of a brutal gang. I wanted to empower him in a positive way because bullies feel generally insecure. One day, Poptart walked onto the bus with this kid who had been viciously picked on. Poptart boomed out, ‘This one is now under my protection,’ and nobody ever touched him again.”
The students in ALC’s program all agreed that violence in the schools had gotten out of control, no matter what economic class the students came from.
So what is in the mind of a fighter like Shaylinn See? Or in a student who is a systematic persecutor? Why are such primitive urges aroused in some teens who single out any child who is different—the weak, the quiet, the timid, those who simply have foreign accents or big ears or small frames, even those who wear their pants too high. Shaylinn was in a regular school until sixth grade, and flunked the next year. Then she was placed in ALC. After that, she went back and forth from traditional schools to the center, where she is now spending her ninth-grade year.
“I do a lot of bullying, fighting really. Like when people call you a coward so it goes around that you are a pussy, and you have to get them back. Or when they teased my little brother for being fat.”
Shaylinn believes that havoc “is way more heavy in the schools than it used to be.” She has been in schools populated mostly by poor children and she has been in ones full of the rich kids and the only difference in bullying that she sees is that the former is more physical and the latter more verbal. You can just look at people wrong and they say ‘what are you looking at’ and before you know it they are pounding on you.”
Not all schools are plagued with the problems of persecutors and bullycides. Most are public schools but many private schools have their own form of bullying. “In the school with rich kids,” Shaylinn says, “the girls who are pretty never get touched. But if you don’t wear Abercrombie and have your hair bleached at a beauty salon, if you just wear a dorky T-shirt, the whole class laughs at you. It starts in sixth grade and then by middle school it’s the worst; everyone has to appear better than you.”
Shaylinn says she began bullying people after one of her closest friends died and her classmates said, "’Fuck that kid, he’s dead.’ It really got to me.
“But I don’t want to do any more fighting. Because I don’t want to be expelled and lose my chance at an education. An education is really important.”
Tristan Reagin, Shaylinn’s younger brother, was an eighth grader who attended a school with a mixed population of poor, middle class, and wealthy kids until he was sent to ALC for “talking back to teachers and insubordination.” The bullying at ALC, he said, was just about the same as the bullying at the rich school. “There was this boy who lived in a shelter and he had these long teeth. They called him “Mighty Rabbit. Where are your carrots!”
“Sometimes, the kids would make fun of Mrs. Johnston in the lunchroom, that she cried in class and everything. But they don’t know what it’s like to lose someone you love.”
“A lot of the rough talk happens at bus stops,” Tristan said, adding that he had been the butt of it. “I’m short and kind of overweight so they called me a girl. Everyone did.”
But Jeff Johnston’s suicide taught Tristan a lesson. “I tried to ignore it, not let it get to me. I really tried to be friends with those kids who were messing with me. But then I got mad and yelled ‘Shut up!” in class and rolled up a piece of paper and threw it at this kid. The principal said I had bullied him. What a joke.
“I lost my best friend. He was hit by a train. He was like a brother to me and he hung out with me and my sister. Sometimes, the kids would make fun of Mrs. Johnston in the lunchroom, that she cried in class and everything. But they don’t know what it’s like to lose someone you love.”
Michael Lamb, a 17-year-old senior at Fort Myers High School, believes that a lot of bullies do it to be showboats. “A lot of kids want to scare people, they want to prove they are tougher than anyone else.
“It’s because bullies don’t think much of themselves,” said Lamb, who was put in ALC for a time. He confessed that, to him, bullying had been like medicine. “When I was in seventh grade, my parents divorced, my grades declined. Anyone who smiled, I hated them and I’d pick on them. If I got to bring somebody down to my level, to feel as small as I felt, mission accomplished.
“It was a lonely year for me and I would call people ‘ugly,’ ‘stupid,’ tell them ‘You’re not going anywhere in Iife.’ When I did stuff like that, nothing could touch me. It didn’t hurt anymore.”
Michael was clever in his bullying: “Kids were assigned seats on the school bus and one time there was this girl I wanted to sit next to but this guy wouldn’t budge. So I just picked up his backpack and threw it all the way to the front of the bus.” The boy yelled ‘Hey,’ and got up to retrieve his belongings. Michael quickly slipped into his seat.
The next year, all the people that Michael had bullied now ganged up on him. His eighth grade was spent in misery. Then someone told him about Debbie Johnston’s class for bullies, about bullying. She let them talk about why they did it, about their depression, helplessness, self-destructiveness like cutting themselves or skipping classes. She also used her savings to take them on frequent trips to Tallahassee to visit the state legislature, and then to Washington to lobby Florida senators and congressmen to enact a tough anti-bullying law in the state.
When Michael heard about the ALC class, he told a friend that “she probably wouldn’t want me, I’m just the kind of person she hates.” But Johnston took him on, and it was a haven for him. The class and its field trips transformed Michael. Johnston, often weeping about the loss of her son, made Michael and others play the role of the victim to see how he felt. She told stories about girls who had sent their naked pictures to the cellphones of boyfriends only to have the guys post them on the Web for the world to see. “Some girls I know of have killed themselves over what is called sexting,” Johnston says. “And the rest will be haunted by the humiliation the rest of their lives.”
“I was transformed by the class,” Michael says now. “Before I knew it I was marching on Washington, and attending workshops on the [ant-bullying] bill. Thank God the law has passed.
It will stop the bullies in Florida once and for all.”
Lucinda Franks is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who was on the staff of the New York Times and has written for the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review and Magazine. Her latest book is My Father's Secret War, about her father, who was a spy for the OSS during World War II.