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B is for Bullying: What Can Phoebe Prince's Shocking Death Teach Us?

Phoebe Prince (Personal Photo)

NEW YORK (CBS) The case of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old Massachusetts girl who took her own life after months of what's been described as relentless bullying, must be a lesson to us all.

As parents, doctors, educators and friends we must do better at spotting the signs. We must speak out when we witness the harassment of others. We must make sure the authorities at schools are not blind to the pain just because there are no physical scars. We must reach out to the victims and lead them to a place of physical and emotional safety.

Phoebe Prince (Personal Photo)

The extreme tragedy of Phoebe Prince's case captured headlines, but unfortunately bullying is practically an every day event in American schools. The most recent government statistics show 32 percent of 12 - 18-year-old students say they've been bullied.

If we really want to tackle bullying, we have to first move beyond the outdated belief that nasty playground antics are a rite of passage and any one who complains is just too soft. Bullying goes beyond name-calling and teasing. It involves repeated malicious behaviors that continue over time. Bullying involves an imbalance of power, where the victim is weaker or perceived to be less able or willing to fight back. Bullying creates a fear in the victim and a belief that any attempt to stop the aggressor will cause additional harm.

Whether or not the bullying involves physical violence, there are emotional scars that can linger if not dealt with properly. Children or teens who are bullied are likely to show signs of depression, loneliness and anxiety. Bullying can interfere with social development, self-esteem and school performance.

A child who is being bullied will likely try to hide the situation from parents, teachers or friends. The child may be afraid that telling others will increase the attacks or may feel in some way responsible for the situation or ashamed of allowing it to happen. But anyone who is being bullied is likely to display warning signs that can be picked up by a caring peer or grown-up.

Here are some things you can look for:

  • Comes home with torn or damaged clothing or missing belongings
  • Has unexplained cuts or bruises
  • Seems afraid of going to school, riding the bus or participating in activities
  • Drop in school grades
  • Complains often of physical ailments
  • Has trouble sleeping or loss of appetite.

If you suspect your child is being bullied, you should ask them to tell you what's going on. Give him or her a lot of time to respond. Reassure them they've done the right thing by telling you. Make sure they know they have done nothing to deserve this treatment. Ask your child what they think the next step should be. Involving them in the process can be empowering. Strategize together about coping skills that may minimize the harassment.

If the bullying is happening at school or the surrounding locations (bus, sporting events, etc.) you must address the matter with the administration. Work with your child's teacher and other school officials to make sure the situation is taken seriously and dealt with properly. Experts say that for anti-bullying efforts to work in a school environment the entire community must be involved. Every teacher, administrator, student and parent must play a role.

Researchers say that the most effective programs at curbing school bullies are the ones that teach every member of the school staff effective strategies to intervene and stop bullying as its happening.

Successful programs also devote class time to talk about bullying, improve peer relationships and mandate lessons that provide students tools to handle bullies.

Since bullying often occurs in areas where adult supervision is limited, schools that can identify these "hot spots" and increase the number of trained personnel stationed there, will have the best hope of stopping the bullies.

Finally, if we really want to raise our children in a bully-free world, than we, as parents, neighbors, educators and clergy, must be good role models.

We need to provide clear examples of kindness and empathy. When children witness us yelling at the waiter who got our order wrong or threatening to harm the driver that just cut us off on the highway, our behaviors suggest that abusive treatment of others will be tolerated. On the other hand, if we control our anger, show sensitivity to others and act respectfully, we will send the right message; No Bullies allowed!