WHETHER SOUTH Hadley school officials were long aware of the bullying of Phoebe Prince, as an investigation by the Northwestern district attorney suggests, or largely in the dark, as Superintendent Gus Sayer claims, there was a failure of leadership that Sayer ought to acknowledge. Principals and teachers cannot know everything that goes on among students in corridors or bathrooms or on Internet chatrooms, but protecting the well-being of students is a core function of schools. It didn’t happen in this case.
Under siege by as many as nine students, Prince committed suicide. The bullying, according to the DA, was blatant and extreme. Rather than declare “we did everything we could,’’ as Sayer did, he should launch a new probe to determine what signals were missed and why. If teachers truly didn’t know of the bullying until a week before the suicide, how might they have learned earlier? If some knew and failed to take sufficient action, what might have prompted them to do so?
Parents, schools, the Legislature, and law enforcement are all starting to get serious about bullying. Actions that were once tolerated or written off as childhood rites of passage now command a harsh and immediate response. It will take time for even well-meaning educational professionals to recalibrate their responses. But they must. Sayer’s defense of his school system was neither helpful nor fully persuasive.