Would Phoebe Prince be alive if she had lived in Sweden?

How a school bullying ombudsman might have helped Phoebe before it was too late

Julia Rooke By Julia Rooke

Phoebe Prince (undated family photo)

Would Phoebe Prince be alive if she had lived in Sweden? Fifteen year old Yasmine Gustafsson thinks so.

Yasmine knows a thing or two about bullying. “I read the story about Phoebe Prince, and I could really recognize myself in her,” she says.

“I think the story about Phoebe would be really different if she had lived in Sweden.”

Phoebe Prince has become a household name and not just in the U.S., for all the wrong reasons. A 15-year-old newcomer to the Massachusetts town of South Hadley, Phoebe was relentlessly bullied by a number of her peers in school and online.

On January 14, 2010, she hanged herself in the stairwell of her home by the scarf her younger sister had given her.

Yasmine Gustaffson (courtesy Yasmine Gustaffson)

Had they met, Prince and Gustaffson might well have become friends. They had a lot in common.

Like Phoebe, Yasmine was also 15 when she made the headlines. She too was taunted and attacked in school. But their fates could not have been more different.

Yasmine became a public figure when she won a court case and $3000 in damages against her school. Soon afterwards she released her first pop single, a song about love, “Upside Down”.

Bullycide USA

In the U.S. Phoebe Prince’s suicide sparked nationwide soul-searching. The debate was only intensified by the seeming inability of her school to recognize and prevent the bullying, and the District Attorney’s criminal charges against Prince’s bullies (which were subsequently dropped).

The data justifies the concern.

32 percent of American 12 to 18-year-olds report having been bullied during the school year. Since Prince’s death there have been at least seven more child suicides linked to bullying. No one can say for sure what makes a child take his or her life. But increasingly, people are looking to school for explanations. According to a leading British charity, BeatBullying, 44 percent of child suicides may be linked to bullying.

In March this year, President Obama launched the first ever National Bullying Summit. He called for greater awareness of the problem saying the Nation must “dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up.”

In fact, the U.S. is by no means the world’s biggest school bully-boy. It occupies a mere middle rank in the bullying league tables. Lithuania and Turkey rank as top brass while the former Soviet Republic of Georgia has introduced police into the classroom to help prevent bullying. But the country with the persistently lowest record is Sweden where only 1:10 kids are said to be bullied. Yasmine Gustaffson was among that 10 percent.

“My classmates have blonde hair and blue eyes. I didn’t fit in. I was tall with dark hair. My father was from Iraq and the kids said he was like Saddam Hussein,” Gustaffson said.

Like Phoebe, Yasmine was an outsider. Her father was an Iraqi immigrant and the children taunted her calling her “Saddam Hussein’s daughter”. Like Phoebe, she felt the teachers did little to help. She claims one teacher swore at her.

Yasmine was bullied, she says, from the age of six. There were two serious incidents which stand out. At the age of ten she describes how her classmates tied a skipping rope around her neck and began to strangle her. Two years later she found her self locked in a toilet surrounded by kids threatening to kill her. “I thought it was my last time of earth. I was really afraid” says Yasmine. Yasmine’s mother called the police. Still the school did nothing according to Yasmine. “The teachers saw when the kids harassed me – I was screaming for help – but they just ignored me.” But unlike Phoebe, she was able to take her complaint to a government official.

Sweden’s Bullying Ombudsman

Lars Arrhenius, Sweden’s Child and School Representative (courtesy government of Sweden)

Lars Arrhenius, the Swedish school bullying ombudsman is a world First. Officially known as the Child and School Student Representative, he commands a small army 20 staff – attorneys and education experts – and their services are paid for by the Government.

There’s no headmaster’s office, no social worker, no middle man. Children who feel they are being let down by their teachers have  since 2006 a hotline to Arrhenius. All Yasmine had to do was to log onto the ombudsman’s website, write a letter and press the SEND button.

Arrhenius responded with a visit to Yasmine’s school and he promptly launched an investigation. “He helped me through a lot. He believed in me and that was a really big thing because most bullied children think its their fault,” says Yasmine.

In April Yasmin’s case was heard in court. The ombudsman represented her in person. He demanded damages of $38,000 to reflect “the grave bullying that went on for a long time and to serve as a warning to those responsible for the school”. But due to an absence of school reports and written evidence related to some of the bullying incidents it was her word against theirs. Yasmine was only awarded $3,000.

Yasmine tells her story to Latitude News :

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Yasmine’s musical career

The ombudsman is appealing against the decision. But life is getting better for Yasmine. Rather than hiding awayYasmine is “out there.” She loves music and has recorded her first single called ‘Upside Down’, a love song.

Just as her bullying experience was the stuff of nightmares, so her musical career has a touch of the fairytale.

Yasmine was discovered one afternoon by a music producer – singing in a children’s hospital ward after fainting at school. She was immediately signed up and is about to release more songs, this time about bullying.

“It’s like revenge for me,” says Yasmine. “I want to tell everybody that if you are bullied you can fight back. You see your school mates in the audience and you feel so strong.”

Yasmine still hears calls of “bullied loser” and “bitch” in the street. The bullying is nothing like it was before and Yasmine is now in touch with other victims – kids she can look to for support.

“I think the story about Phoebe would be really different if she had lived in Sweden,” says Yasmine. “She would have had the ombudsman , she would be in touch with other kids who’ve been bullied and she’d know it wasn’t her fault”

Since Phoebe Prince’s death Massachusetts has passed some hard-hitting anti-bullying legislation. It’s also some of the most draconian. Students found guilty of sending repeated obscene messages, texts or phone calls could face a maximum three months in jail or up to five years for issuing death threats.

The law also demands that schools investigate bullying and, most importantly, they must incorporate anti-bullying programs into the curriculum.

Anti-bullying legislation in the US is still a geographic lottery. Forty seven states now have laws but they give varying weight to victims’ rights.

This September, New Jersey brought into effect some of America’s toughest bullying laws specifying, among other things, that schools will be graded in public to reflect how well or badly they implement anti bullying policies.

Three states, Montana, South Dakota, and Michigan still have none.


 

RELATED STORIES FROM OTHER SOURCES – IN THE US AND AROUND THE WORLD:

 

From the Jakarta Globe, Indonesia – June 2011: Teen suicide increasingly linked to school bullying across the country.

 

From Minnesota Public Radio – May 2011: A special investigation “Weak on Bullying” looks at how the state is (and isn’t) dealing with bullying.

From Radio Sweden – August 2010: Reports of bullying in Swedish schools have been on the rise since early spring, as news has spread about the nation’s ombudsman for student issues. Now, as the fall school year gets underway, kids will be able to read a new handbook about what to do if they’re bullied. Swedish students on the streets of Stockholm talk about bullying.

 

  • Bogdan

    Your article brings depth to the most recent developments in Buffalo, NY where a teen Jamey Rodemeyer committed suicide on Sunday after being bullied in school and on the web. Some comments that allegedly led to his suicide read: “Jamie is stupid, fat, gay and ugly. He must die.” Let us see what kind of reaction this will bring from the National Summit on Bullying organized by the the US Department of Education that just convened in Washington, DC .
    Bogdan from Buffalo