With the passing of anti-bullying laws — and anti-hazing laws before that — we now have two potential resources for addressing the gang intimidation, recruitment and initiation activity occurring in many of our schools.
It appears, however, that peer violence is not called the same thing everywhere we go. It’s “bullying” or “hazing” in our wealthy suburbs. It’s “street” or “gang violence” in the poor sections of our cities.
Many of these underserved communities happen to be predominantly black and Latino. The uneven application of our anti-bullying laws exposes the signs of a double standard at work and reveals dangerous biases that have regrettable consequences for our children.
As we find ourselves at the start of another school year, academic institutions across the state of Massachusetts must be in full compliance with anti-bullying legislation passed two years ago. The law was passed in response to the tragic events surrounding Phoebe Prince, the South Hadley teen who committed suicide as a result of harassment from bullies.
By most accounts, Phoebe was like a rose — pretty, full of potential and poised to flourish. She possessed the mind of a gifted artist. She was 15 when she chose to hang herself in a stairwell of her family’s apartment.
The events leading up to Phoebe’s last day sound like those of Lance Hartgrove, a 15-year-old who was brutally murdered this past July in Roxbury. At school and on Facebook, gang members pursued and threatened Lance for months leading up to his death. Like many students who experience daily harassment from gangs, Lance was the target of bullies.
Lost in the assumptions concerning race and class is the fact that Phoebe was as much a victim of violence from a gang of peers as Lance was the victim of bullying from classmates.
The list of victims tormented in life and then innocently killed at the hands of gangs sickens the heart. These victims are our other Phoebes. They are roses by other names.
The legal definition for what constitutes bullying is actually very clear. As statutorily defined here in Massachusetts, bullying, as well as hazing, refers to conduct or gestures that potentially endanger the physical, mental, or emotional well-being of a student, with hazing applying more specifically to initiation practices.
Bullying explicitly covers usage of the Internet, and goes so far as to account for any gesture that “disrupts the education process or orderly operation of a school.” This measure proves especially intriguing in light of gang activity, which, according to studies done at Northwestern and Columbia universities, leads to higher truancy and drop-out rates for all involved — gang members and targets alike.
Moreover, data suggests that many gang members — local and national — are of or around school age. According to the Department of Justice’s National Youth Gang Center, 71 percent of gang members are between the ages of 15 and 24, and 16 percent are age 14 or under. There are upwards of 160 gangs operating in Boston alone.
It seems we’ve become jaded and cynical toward gang violence because we perceive it as an issue that remains disproportionately black, Latino and urban, something “they” have to live with.
Aside from the moral and ethical limitations expressed in such thinking, the comfortable storing away of an issue within its own demographic compartment prevents us from seeing the practical value of more mainstream solutions.
Schools should never prove hazardous for students. With both anti-bullying laws and anti-hazing laws on the books, educators potentially have at their fingertips an unprecedented amount of legal recourse for helping menaced students and for saving young lives. Zip code should not dictate the application of such laws, and semantics shouldn’t get in the way.
No matter if your name is Phoebe or Lance, or whether you live in South Hadley or Roxbury, bullying is always bullying.
David H. Roane is an artist and educator.