Exploring The Link Between Bullying And Suicide

Can bullying lead to suicide? That's the question at the heart of a case in Massachusetts, where nine students are charged in connection with the death of a young woman. Phoebe Prince, allegedly the victim of their bullying, hanged herself in January. Her case is once again raising questions about the real life consequences of bullying and what can be done to stop it. Host Michel Martin talks to two anti-bullying advocates: Nicholas Carlisle, executive director of the group No Bully, and Miriam Rollins, national director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. Also joining the conversation is William Pitt, who discusses how childhood bullying nearly brought him to the brink of suicide.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a moment, I'll share my thoughts. It's my weekly "Can I Just Tell You?" commentary. That's coming up a little later.

But first, it's time to go "Behind Closed Doors." That's the part of the program where we talk about matters that are often hard to talk about, whether because of stigma or shame. And that's why we want to talk about bullying.

A lot of school districts and parents talk a lot about bullying these days, but some people still seem to think it's just something you have to go through. But law enforcement authorities in South Hadley, Massachusetts, say that attitude no longer holds water after a 15-year-old high school student committed suicide in January after months of bullying by her classmates.

Authorities say Phoebe Prince endured relentless taunting and physical threats and abuse by peers at South Hadley High School before she took her own life. Now, nine students face various charges in connection with her death, and more charges could be forthcoming.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Nicholas Carlisle. He's executive director of No Bully. It's an organization that says it seeks to make school a place where every student feels included. Miriam Rollins is the national director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. That's an organization of law enforcement leaders that seek to advance evidence-based methods to reduce crime.

We're also joined by William Pitt. He's written about his experiences with bullying during his youth, and he also has family members who attend the high school where Phoebe Prince was bullied. And they're all with us now. Welcome. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. MIRIAM ROLLINS (National Director, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids): Thank you.

Mr. NICHOLAS CARLISLE (Executive Director, No Bully): Thank you.

Mr. WILLIAM PITT (Writer): Thank you very much.

MARTIN: I wanted to start by asking you each, as briefly as you can, whether you feel that there's some escalation going on here. I think all of us - we all have, you know, memories of bullying, or - we are aware of it, we know what it is. But do you think that there's something going on now in schools that just takes it to a level that maybe adults don't recognize? Miriam, I'll start with you.

Ms. ROLLINS: The one thing that's new that those of us - well, I'm 50, so those of us who are that age - didn't grow up with is the technological capabilities to bully without actually being face-to-face. So, you have texting. You have Facebook. You have a variety of tools at your disposal that obviously are wonderful tools if used well, but sometimes they're not. And sometimes they really are avenues for not only mass bullying, because you can reach numbers of people that you never could have before, but also impersonal bullying. So you know, you don't have to have the courage to face someone. You just have to type it in late at night, when you're all alone.

MARTIN: Nicholas, what do you think?

Mr. CARLISLE: Bullying really gets attention when there's a dramatic act like a suicide or sadly, some school violence stemming from bullying. And the interest in bullying really got going in the 1980s, when Dan Olweus started studying bullying in Norway because of a spate of suicides there. So we don't know the numbers back before 1980. It wasn't measured then. It seems to have been fairly consistent since then.

But what does happen is that the public gets interested, and the legislature gets interested, when sadly, there's dramatic acts like the death of Phoebe Prince.

MARTIN: OK, William Pitt, what do you think about this?

Mr. PITT: Well, my experiences with bullying when I was younger were uniformly savage. So it would be difficult for me to say that it's worse now than it was then back when I was in high school and junior high, because it was pretty bad.

MARTIN: Would you mind telling us?

Mr. PITT: There were instances where - the article that I wrote about this begins with me being held down and having four kids apply an eraser to my hand until it starts bleeding everywhere. They wanted me to cry. I wouldn't cry for them, so they beat me up. Daily violence. Daily harassment. No place safe anywhere in the school. And the reason why this was personal, the Phoebe Prince issue -beyond the fact that my family is involved - is when I was 13, it reached a crescendo and I myself attempted to take my own life because of what I was enduring in school. So I can't sit here and say that it's worse now than it was then, because it was pretty awful back then.

MARTIN: I'm sorry that happened to you.

Mr. PITT: That's quite all right.

MARTIN: How do you - if you mind if I ask - and I'm thankful that you survived the experience, but how did you get out of it?

Mr. PITT: I left after my freshman year of high school and dove into a gigantic, impersonal public school and was able to kind of swim away from that whole situation. I grew up a little bit. I sort of sat back and observed how people related to each other, and kind of learned how to get by without attracting the kind of individual who seems to smell weakness on kids like a shark will smell blood in the water.

MARTIN: Nicholas Carlisle, can I ask you - because I think that this is a question that a lot of people are asking themselves - is, what could this girl have possibly done that would make people want to treat her that way?

Mr. CARLISLE: Well, bullying is so widespread that we get, literally, thousands of kids involved in bullying every year, so its a wide range of different answers to that. And sometimes, youre just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, youre just a new kid going to a new school - which was Phoebe's case - and that may be enough to - for the old guard to shun her and ostracize her. I dont know the details of this case, but maybe there wasnt that much that Phoebe could've done.

MARTIN: Hmm. She's very pretty, too. I wonder whether that has something to do with it - jealousy?

Mr. CARLISLE: Definitely, the kids who are different in any way. So the kids who are less attractive, the kids who are more attractive, they both seem to get targeted by bullies.

MARTIN: William Pitt, do you have any insight on this? Why do you think? I mean, forgive me. Please do - let me just be very clear, I am not blaming you for what happened to you. That is not my intention at all. But I did wonder, was there ever any sense of why you got targeted?

Mr. PITT: I was shy. I was short. I wasnt particularly good at athletics. I was smart but there are, you know, a hundred little personality quirks that you could nail down that made me a juicy target. But every kid is different, and there's no real way for me to pin down what it was about me that brought this out in people. But there most have been something because it did happen in two different schools.

MARTIN: Can I ask about the adults in your world at that time? What was the attitude? Because I know when I was growing up, the attitude was, well, thats just something you have to deal with. Do you remember, how did the adults - did you ever talk to any adults? Did any adults ever intervene? What was the attitude?

Mr. PITT: They, by and large, they couldnt have cared less. And this was an interesting perspective for me because I spent several years as a high school teacher. My experience in the schools, the headmaster knew what was going on and didnt care. The teachers knew what was going on and didnt care. I dont particularly understand why they were so reticent to do anything about it, but they could've cared less.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about bullying, particularly in connection with that case in Massachusetts, where a young girl committed suicide after relentlessly being bullied by peers at South Hadley High School in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

So Nicholas Carlisle, can I ask you about this, sort of how this issue is being handled by school districts now?

Mr. CARLISLE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Because I do think you hear more about bullying now from school leaders than you did when a lot of us were growing up.

Mr. CARLISLE: I think there is more awareness but they're - amazingly, a large percentage of the majority of the school districts do not have an anti-bullying policy, at least here in California. There are a range of different responses that schools take to bullying. Some schools do very little about it, and the other schools split either between the schools that take a fairly punitive, consequence-based approach or the schools that focus more on teaching their students social and emotional skills, and look at a more solution-focused approach to bullying. So there's roughly three camps that schools fall into.

MARTIN: Nicholas, do you have a position on what is a best practice?

Mr. CARLISLE: Well, its a really thorny question because many schools go in with zero tolerance policies. And in its essence, those are saying there's a prescribed punishment for any particular offense. And what we found is that those policies dont seem to reduce the level of bullying and violence in schools. As much as we want to go in hard and stop bullying, it doesnt seem to work.

And what does seem to be more effective is asking the students themselves to solve the bullying, and that's what No Bully, my organization, is training teachers in how to do. And we pull together a team of students and we ask them to solve the bullying of one of their peers. And that intervention seems to stop the bullying in about 80 percent of cases.

MARTIN: Miriam Rollins, you are a former prosecutor and now, one of the reasons you do the work that you do is that youre trying to sort of see what works, and advance arguments about what works. I think that what got a lot of people's attention in this Phoebe Prince case is the fact that people were charged.

Well, now, obviously the system has to go through and the prosecutors have to make their case, presumably, but what about that? You know, some people say on the one hand, people ignore it and - then they come down with this hammer. Is that appropriate? Could you give us your perspective?

Ms. ROLLINS: Obviously, the laws differ across states in terms of what bullying behaviors might constitute criminal offenses. And, you know, our members who are prosecutors and chiefs and sheriffs around the country arrest, prosecute and jail folks that are violating the law all the time. And if, in fact, the bullying rises to the level of something that's a criminal act, they're charged with looking into it and determining what the appropriate course of action is.

MARTIN: But what would be?

Ms. ROLLINS: Just because something's bad doesnt make it a crime. There are many, many acts that people can do that are bad that dont rise to the level of criminal behavior. You know, that's really for the police and prosecutors to make determinations about, do we make an arrest in those cases?

MARTIN: OK. But as a matter of policy - take your prosecutor hat off and put your policy hat on. Do you think, as a matter of policy, that school districts should be looking more toward a law enforcement solution?

Ms. ROLLINS: I mean, honestly, I have to say that I agree with what Nicholas Carlisle was saying about a more solution-focused approach. I think - and actually, it comes back to something, again, that Nicholas was talking about. There's the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, originated in Norway. It's now been replicated here in South Carolina and various other jurisdictions around the country. And what that does is take a school-wide approach. It does ensure that you have rules about bullying, so everyone has those rules and those rules are enforced.

It also educates everyone in the school - not just the students, the teachers, the administrators, the school lunchroom staff, the folks who might supervise a playground, because it can happen there - basically educating everyone in the school environment, and the parents, about what constitutes bullying and the fact that it needs to stop.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ROLLINS: But then you also need to intervene appropriately when bullying occurs. Now, you know, some places might do mediation or various approaches. But what the Olweus Program talks about is bring the parent, the bully and the principal together. Get them in a room and say, this isn't going to continue, and what do we need to make sure that it doesnt continue? But then also, dont forget about the bullied kid. Because remember, as I think was mentioned earlier, you know, some of the school shootings that we had in the '90s actually were the result of kids who were bullied, who then took the law into their own hands.

MARTIN: That's true. Well, also here in Washington, D.C., there's a terrible case where a boy shot another boy in the cafeteria. And it turned out that the shooter in that case had been bullied - you know, again, relentlessly. And that is what happens.

Ms. ROLLINS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So, two parents lost their kids, and that is true. If I could just have a final thought from each of you about what you think we should think about, going forward. And I dont know, Miriam, do you want to start?

Ms. ROLLINS: Sure. We actually have a unique moment in time opportunity right now in terms of federal policy. We have an Education secretary who's proposing a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act. So they're proposing reforms. This is a chance for change. This is a chance for making sure that we have some leverage on what works, evidence-based approaches at the federal level to help schools and school districts do whats effective.

And so I'm hopeful that this reauthorization, this renewal of the federal K through 12 law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, actually presents an opportunity to say what works in terms of bullying and violence and drug use, and to basically implement all of those evidence-based approaches in schools because we know a lot about what works; we're not doing it yet.

MARTIN: OK. Well, keep us posted. William Pitt, what's a final thought from you? Now that we're thinking about this, what else should we think about?

Mr. PITT: The article that I wrote was titled "Here There Be Monsters," which is how ancient maps used to label unexplored and unknown parts of the world. And bullying, and the manner in which it perpetuates itself and its effect on our social fabric, is one of those unexplored areas. I am profoundly grateful to be able to come on and talk about this and to hear what it is that your two guests have been doing to deal with the situation. I'm very grateful.

MARTIN: Nicholas Carlisle, final thought from you. What else should we be thinking about as we think about this?

Mr. CARLISLE: There are two very...

MARTIN: So that if we get together a year from now, five years from now, we're not having the same conversation.

Mr. CARLISLE: I share that hope. There are two directions which I think are very positive now. I mean, education, first off, if we invest in building strong school communities so the students actually want to be at school and feel happy there and want to get along. That reaps dividends in terms of reducing violence and bullying.

And secondly, the research is out that if we teach children social and emotional skills, they actually reduce their bullying behaviors, they reduce the levels of suspensions and expulsions in schools. And by teaching social and emotional intelligence, you actually boast academic results. So it's a win-win all around.

MARTIN: Nicholas Carlisle is executive director of No Bully. That's an organization that aims to do exactly as it says, eliminate bullying in schools, and make the school a more inclusive environment. He joined us from member station KALW in San Francisco. William Pitt wrote about his experience with bullying. We'll have a link on our Web site so you can read his piece. He joined us from Boston. And Miriam Rollins is the national director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. That's a national organization of law enforcement professionals seeking evidence-based solutions to fighting crime. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C., studio.

I thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. ROLLINS: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. PITT: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. CARLISLE: Thank you.

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