>Let me start by confessing that I am not terribly familiar with the facts of the bullying suicide in South Hadley, MA. However, I am writing this blog post to express concern with the general notion of meting out punishment as a consequence of a suicide.
Hampshire County District Attorney Elizabeth Sheibel has opted to charge teens involved in the alleged bullying with an assortment of felony charges. These range from stalking to statutory rape. While I hesitate to question her intentions, this appears to be an example of after-the-fact finger-pointing of the worst sort. Her splashing the teenage defendants all over the national media, before they have had the benefit of a fair trial, creates the unfortunate appearance that she is exploiting this tragedy as a career move. District attorneys have a law enforcement role independent of their role as politicians. They are not supposed to swayed by the calls of the masses for revenge. While again, I hesitate to question her motives, I think she has handled the appearances of this thing in a terribly unfair manner.
These kids facing charges were obviously very cruel to the girl who died. That much I have gathered from the media stories. It appears that they may have even acted criminally. However, the types of acts that they are accused of are rarely if ever prosecuted independent of some tragedy.
I am not sure whether they are alleging that the alleged statutory rape was forcible, but assuming that this was merely consensual sex between teenagers, this charge is particularly offensive. That the deceased student was later mocked as a consequence of this encounter is entirely irrelevant. Singling this kid out for the type of consensual sex that takes place every day is remarkably unjust. If convicted, this kid–and he is a kid–may stamped for life with the label of sex offender. Again, I say this assuming the alleged rape was not forcible.
It would be one thing if Sheibel wanted to bring a negligent homicide or manslaughter charge, attempting to somehow prove that the bullying acts caused the student’s death. At least those charges would be addressing the real issue here. However, charging prior acts only because of a later tragedy is improper.
Let’s face the uncomfortable truth: as bad as the bullying here was, there have probably been many instances where innocent students have been subjected to the same or worse, yet they did not choose to commit suicide. I would venture to say that most of us said at least one cruel thing as a teen that we wish we could take back. Should the kids in this case be treated differently simply because the victim’s reaction was more drastic?
I’m also concerned that this sends an unfortunate message to depressed and ridiculed teenagers: that you can become a virtual media hero and exact terrible revenge on your tormentors through the act of suicide. The sad truth is that for those who have given up hope in life, the prospect of vengeance could provide one more temptation toward the unthinkable.
When we start criminally charging individuals based on the suicide of another, we distort basic moral principals. For example, if you agree that bullying caused this suicide, you must also agree that poor living conditions can be the cause of suicide bombings. Both murder and suicide are intentional acts committed by individuals with free will. I would argue that they are both immoral acts. We must not demean our sense of right and wrong in order to make sense of a horrible outcome.
We are ultimately all responsible for our decisions. If the bullies in this case chose to break the law, they should be treated like all others who engage in those acts. But I fear that in this case, these kids are being prosecuted for the tragic decision of the victim herself.