Stories about suicide now catch my eye more than they once did, so it’s no surprise that this story leapt out at me while reading the paper this morning: A 14-year-old high school student in Bayville, New Jersey is bullied in a school where bullying seems to be a chronic problem. She’s beaten in a school hallway by another student who has her confederates film the beating; the video is then uploaded to TikTok. The victim, thoroughly humiliated, goes home, waits a day, then kills herself.*
Confronted with the chronic nature of the bullying in the school, and the school’s equally chronic failure to respond to it, the school’s superintendent does his best to deflect. It was the girl’s fault, he says: she was a troubled drug user from a dysfunctional family; the school tried to give her drug counseling, but the family declined. And that, he says, not the bullying, is what explains her suicide.
The case has caused real outrage here in New Jersey; it took a couple of weeks, but the superintendent was, under pressure, eventually forced to step down. From all reports, this seems to have been a school where bullying was allowed to run unchecked, and where the school’s administration seems to have been to blame for it. The superintendent himself seems a grotesque self-parody of some kind, a blustering, dim-witted cross between Dick Vernon from “The Breakfast Club,” and Immanuel Kant on a bad day. The school’s administration is now, in the wake of Adriana’s suicide, getting its long-deserved comeuppance. Students are protesting, their parents are joining them, and neither party seems in the mood for mercy or forgiveness. A silver lining in a terribly dark cloud: more power to them.
I won’t try to summarize every criticism being made, or comment on every facet of the story. I basically agree with the school’s critics, and don’t want to steal their thunder. I can’t, however, resist commenting on one neglected aspect of the controversy. The school, now on the receiving end of public criticism and scrutiny, seems to be taking up a defensive posture, most likely in anticipation of litigation. Having magnanimously “allowed” protests to take place for awhile, its regal patience has now worn thin. Protests are all well and good when no one notices them, but with the national and even international press getting wind of the story, things are (from the administrators’ perspective) starting to get out of hand. Invoking the Holy Trinity of reading, writing, and ’rithmetic, the school has forthwith decreed that the students’ protests must come to an end, so that learning may forthwith take place. Convenient that a return to the 3R’s should line up so well with the demands of PR.
The (now former) superintendent’s letter is worth quoting on this point. I’ve left the orthography in the original, just to give you a sense of the standards of literacy and cogency involved.
To ensure the health, safety, and well-being for all students, there will not be any rallies in the future without prior administrative approval otherwise action will be taken in accordance with policy. All students must be in classes and respect rules, procedure, and adhere to the direction of staff members within our school community.
So many things one could say or ask. Does the (former) superintendent’s letter bind The People even after his resignation? Or must a new, equally slovenly letter be written by the incoming superintendent to renew the covenant of the old? Do political demonstrations in the United States really require the “prior administrative approval” of the local high school, or are they autonomous exercises of constitutionally protected freedoms that may proceed without the express permission of the entity being protested? Can a school’s profession of concern for the “health, safety, and well-being” of its students be taken seriously under the present circumstances, or does the hypocrisy of that phrase only add fuel to the fires of resentment?
As for “rules,” is it not a clear, obvious, egregious violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to divulge, without parental consent, that a student was thought to have a drug problem, or other psychological problem, and was offered counseling for it? If so, doesn’t it take a lot of fucking chutzpah to violate federal law, then bloviate to the world at large about “rules” and “procedure”?
I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t be fully certain of my interpretation of FERPA. Who can? But I’ve been through my share of workplace trainings in both FERPA and HIPAA, having spent twenty-six years in higher education, six in a counseling program, and almost three in health care. At no time have I ever gotten the impression that an institution is permitted, for reasons of PR, to blab its ass off about a student’s alleged personal problems to oh, say, the British press. Personally, I always got the reverse impression, namely that confidentiality and discretion were the operative principles. But then, I was just a miserable college professor, OR janitor, and business analyst to whom “the rules” applied, not some Holier-Than-Thou School Superintendent to whom they didn’t.
I should add that it’s not even clear that Adriana had the problems that are alleged of her, or if she did, that they’re problems of a kind that marked her out as a proverbial “problem child.” Whatever their status, they’re irrelevant. It’s probably against the law, and certainly a moral affront, to bring them up.
The Times article says that the father is preparing litigation of some kind. I don’t usually applaud the efforts of plaintiffs’ attorneys, but I’d be happy to see his lawsuit succeed. At a bare minimum, Adriana’s father should look into filing a FERPA complaint against the school. If FERPA means anything, a complaint of this kind ought to be a slam dunk.
I’m tempted to end this post with words intended to console the bereaved, but I know only too well that there are no such words. Bereavement is terrible. Worse still is to mourn the loss of a young son or daughter. But there simply are no words to console the survivors of a young suicide.
I know the drill, having lived it: One tries, quixotically, obsessively, to reconstruct the thoughts of the afflicted person, as if to insert oneself counterfactually into her despairing mind, and find the crucial misinference that led her astray. One fantasizes finding that crucial error, and having done so, fantasizes the world in which one leads her from the ledge she’s on back to safety and back to life. But fantasized victory over death doesn’t reverse death. There’s no return from a departure from life, and no real consolation for those who survive it. There’s only the knowledge that there are others out there who have suffered a similar loss, and who therefore know what it’s like to lose in this way. Even that isn’t particularly consolatory, I know. It’s just a little better than nothing. But when you’re left with nothing, something is sometimes the best you can get. It is, in any case, all I have to offer. RIP.
*I got the chronology wrong slightly here. Adriana killed herself the day after the video was posted, which was two days after the attack. I’ve also slightly changed the wording of a sentence here; an earlier version suggested that the attacker herself had uploaded the video to TikTok. Exactly which individuals did what is unclear from press reports.
“Invoking the Holy Trinity of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic”
I think you mean ’rithmetic, not ‘rithmetic.
And then there’s the students who attacked her and presumably filmed it. I do wonder what they’re doing now, amid this maelstrom of completely justified protest. Saying to each other, ‘Well she was a basket case, if she hadn’t done it then she would’ve od’ed down the line so it’s not our fault ‘ or something.
The school adminstrators are simply getting ready for that all-American panacea, an imminent lawsuit. And the only question they will ask themselves is, “What could we have done to avoid a lawsuit?”
This writer gets the basic diagnosis right. American teens are unwell because the society they live in is a self-glorifying insane asylum. I have doubts about her prescription, but it’s not as though I have any better ideas.
Very helpful and informative:
The community confronts the school board;
Resign in disgrace but mysteriously keep collecting your six figure salary: