There is a theory in the law known as the “eggshell skull principle”, which, in essence, means that a person who commits a wrongful act takes their victim as they find them. For example, Person A hits Person B over the head with a baseball bat. Of course it's an assault, but you'd also assume that it would cause serious injury to hit someone over the head with a baseball bat. But what if the same scenario existed, but instead of Person A assaulting Person B with a wooden bat, they use a plastic baseball bat? It's an assault nonetheless. Now, add another fact: the victim has an “eggshell skull,” and what could be a minor injury to the average person will, in this person's case, actually result in serious injury or death. Whose fault is it? The law generally presumes that, in the case of the Eggshell Skull, the victim should not be penalized for being especially vulnerable; rather, it should fall upon the wrongdoer to accept the consequences of his or her wrongful actions, EVEN IF they were not necessarily predictable. It's a lesson most of us study in law school.
You take your victims as you find them.
And so why on earth am I giving this information to the vast majority of my readers who will never go to law school?
Because I found myself swearing at the TV again recently, and this time, it was because of a very public case that has served to open our eyes to the issue of bullying, the tragic Phoebe Prince case. When the news of Phoebe's suicide and the subsequent arrests of her classmates who are accused of bullying her surfaced, I had the mixed emotions that I imagine many of us who deal with “bullying” on a regular basis had. I was sad and outraged that another young life should be lost to something I genuinely believe is preventable by responsible parents and school districts, and simultaneously grateful for any national attention that could be garnered on this very important subject.
Indeed, I even noticed a distinct shift in the seriousness with which school district attorneys were taking my special education clients' allegations of bullying in the immediate aftermath of Phoebe's very public suicide.
But then, I was working out on my stationary bike the other morning while indulging a guilty pleasure…watching the Today Show. Suddenly the teasers came for the upcoming segment…”new revelations on the Phoebe Prince tragedy,” it read, or something like it. The segment turned out to be an interview discussing the “shocking news” that Phoebe was, in fact, suffering from mental illness PRIOR TO being bullied by the kids at her new school, and had allegedly been hospitalized previously due to psychiatric issues. It would be hard to interpret either the lead-in to the interview or the actual interview with the reporter who “uncovered” this information as anything other than this:
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“WHEW!…so THIS is the TRUE reason this girl committed suicide…NOT because she was being bullied, but because she was mentally unstable!”
If it's possible to have a stationary bike accident, then I came damn close.
I do not know enough about Phoebe's educational history to know whether she was evaluated for an emotional disability, and if she had one, whether it adversely impacted her education such that she should have been given an IEP under the IDEA. However, I do know that at least a few of the alleged facts that have come out (she was hospitalized for swallowing a bunch of pills previously, left her prior school and community in order to have a “fresh start” at a new school, and was reportedly “checking in” with the school nurse and another counselor at the public school on a regular basis due to her history) are a few “red flags” for at least convening an IEP Team Meeting. When a kid is struggling this much emotionally, it would seem that a psychiatric evaluation would be the pedagogically sound next step.
Sadly, the message the media seems to be sending based on the latest information is this: “she was emotionally fragile, and therefore the kids who bullied her are not responsible for how she reacted.”
Folks, that Phoebe may have had an emotional disability does not make the fact of her suicide less reprehensible; it makes it more reprehensible.
I've explained the eggshell skull principle which seriously undercuts the argument that she is the one at fault, but let me add one more. I'll call it the “common human decency principle.” How about this as a set of rules: “when a kid is behaving as if they're not thinking clearly, and is obviously in need of psychological help, we DON'T bully them. We also don't blame it on them when they behave as a person who is not thinking clearly.”
How about that?