1/5/2011

By Brittany Clement

The recent string of teenage suicides attributable to bullying has caused quite a stir in the media and high schools nationwide. To be sure, these cases illustrate the tortuous experience many teens have in high school and raise serious questions about school authorities’ oversight (or lack thereof); however, using criminal law as a remedy for these tragic deaths is neither a feasible nor sensible solution to the problem. Yet this is precisely what one district attorney is attempting to do after the suicide of a fifteen-year-old girl.

The major national case on point is the story of Phoebe Prince, a high-school freshman who committed suicide in January after facing relentless bullying from several of her classmates. Prince, an Irish immigrant, was called a “whore” and “Irish slut” after becoming involved with senior boys with a girlfriend and close ex-girlfriend. (For a more detailed description of Prince’s story, read Emily Bazelon’s three-part series on Slate.)

In March, District Attorney Betsy Scheibel charged six teens in connection with Prince’s death. Schiebel charged two senior boys with statutory rape and charged one of the boys, along with four girls, with civil rights violations resulting in bodily injury. Two of the girls are also charged with stalking. The civil rights violations stem from derogatory terms involving the word “Irish” and the bodily injury stems from Prince’s suicide itself. All six teens have pleaded not guilty to all charges. A trial date has been set for March for the senior charged only with statutory rape. The other five are still awaiting trial, and the future of the cases is unclear, as Scheibel steps down at the end of the year and the district attorney-elect is a former defense attorney who received support from many defense attorneys in his primary election.

First, let’s look at the statutory rape charges. Both seniors were 17 at the time; Prince was 15. One claims he and Prince never had sex at all, while Prince admitted having consensual sex with the other to his later girlfriend. While the age difference technically constitutes statutory rape, it is a case district attorneys would rarely prosecute. The charges here are clearly just attempts to hold the now-men accountable for a death they could not control. One is not even charged with bullying-related offenses and the other one had sex with Prince long before he and others engaged in bullying. Instead of achieving justice for Prince, the charges have ruined both men’s lives and further dragged Prince’s name through the mud by putting her sex life in the national spotlight well after her death.

Despite the issues with the statutory rape charges, the more concerning charges are the civil rights violations resulting in bodily injury. Equating suicide with “resulting in bodily harm” flips criminal law on its head. Criminal law is primarily based on a defendant’s intent. The teens here may have called Prince cruel names, but nowhere in the criminal complaints nor any media accounts is there any evidence the teens sought to cause Prince any bodily harm (absent throwing an empty drink can at her) or even wished Prince would commit suicide. The charges as they stand are based solely Prince’s — the victim’s — state of mind. It’s hard to believe prosecutors would have brought the charges if Prince hadn’t committed suicide. Under this standard, some bullies will face felony charges for their actions, while others will face no consequences for equally cruel behavior because criminal charges will hinge on the unpredictable effects on the victim. Such hit-or-miss liability runs contrary to fundamental principles of criminal law.

That being said, bullying clearly constitutes a major problem in high schools across the country. Although criminal law is not the sensible way to solve the problem, anti-bullying legislation passed this year in states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey will go a long way in placing greater responsibility on school authorities to not only crack down on bullies’ behavior, but also set up counseling and other mechanisms for victims to cope with others’ bullying. Such proactive steps engage the entire community in combating the problem and hopefully save lives and reputations before it’s too late. These legislative actions do far more justice for Phoebe Prince and other teens across the country than haphazard criminal charges ever could.