Should Phoebe Prince's Bullies Go to Jail?

Phoebe Prince hanged herself in her bedroom in South Hadley, Massachusetts at the age of 15. Six students from her high school are charged with hounding her to suicide. Emily Bazelon investigated the back story of the Phoebe Prince case for Slate as part of a series on cyber-bullying.

Like an anthropologist, Bazelon pieced together the complex social dynamics of South Hadley High through in-depth interviews with Phoebe's classmates, grand jury records, and police interviews. To make a long, sad, byzantine story short, Phoebe was ostracized because she was an immigrant freshman who tried to date two boys whom older girls had claimed as their own.

Bazelon raises credible doubts about whether all six defendants are equally guilty. Media reports invited the inference that all six colluded to terrorize Phoebe. Bazelon ultimately concluded that some of the incidents that led to charges actually stemmed from more isolated conflicts rather than a grand, sustained conspiracy. Furthermore, while some defendants are accused of serious crimes, others are charged for doing things that don't even sound illegal.

Flannery Mullins is charged because she allegedly made snarky allusions to "Irish sluts" on her facebook page, even though she never mentioned Phoebe by name, or said anything to her directly. The only corroborated face-to-face incident between Flannery and Phoebe involved the two girls pointedly not making eye contact in a school bathroom. Teachers warned the girls to stay away from each other and they did.

Flannery's friend Sharon Chanon Velazquez is facing charges because she publicly berated Phoebe for being a slut and encroaching on Flannery's boyfriend. She was suspended for doing it, and Bazelon found no evidence that she ever bothered Phoebe again.

Perhaps most disturbingly, 18-year-old Austin Renaud is charged with statutory rape even though he denies having sex with Phoebe. Clearly, he's being charged because prosecutors want to link him with the bullying but lack direct evidence. It's rare to prosecute consensual sex between teens so close in age, especially when nobody makes a complaint. Austin denies he ever slept with Phoebe. No one claims that he bullied her, either. On the contrary, sources told Bazelon that Austin was kind and sympathetic to Phoebe. His girlfriend Flannery was jealous, hence her snarky facebook updates.

Only three kids, only Phoebe's ex-boyfriend, his current girlfriend, and their mutual friend ganged up on Phoebe on the last day of her life. It was a classic bullying pattern. They showed up together in the library and tormented her at lunch, then they accosted her again after school, finally one of the girls sped past Phoebe in a car and threw an empty drink can at her.

Bazelon argues convincingly that three of the six defendants have been unfairly lumped in with the three hardcore tormentors. She also notes that Phoebe was psychologically unstable even before the bullying and had attempted suicide in the past.

My only reservation about the piece is that it veers dangerously close to victim blaming. Bazelon doesn't condone the abuse, but she flirts with the idea that some of the aggression towards Phoebe wasn't really bullying:

What actually happened, in the eyes of many of the students I've talked to, is that Phoebe got into separate conflicts with different kids. That doesn't excuse the other kids' bad behavior in response to Phoebe's actions. But it was one source of the trouble. Social scientists generally define bullying as repeated acts of abuse that involve a power imbalance. Is that what happened to Phoebe? "In the end you can call it bullying," says one adult at the school. "But to the other kids, Phoebe was the one with the power. She was attracting guys away from relationships." (Because of the hyper-publicity surrounding this case, I was able to talk to staff at the school only on condition of anonymity.) [Slate]

I understand the need to put Flannery and Sharon's behavior in context; but bullying over boys is still bullying. Slut-shaming is still bullying. The fact that Phoebe may have deliberately defied social norms doesn't make her fundamentally different from someone who is bullied for her weight, or her teeth, or any of the other bullshit pretexts kids use to torment their vulnerable peers. In fact, slut-shaming is an especially insidious and effective bullying tactic because it leverages preexisting social stigmas. If you make fun of a kid with a limp, you're the meany. Whereas, if you humiliate a girl for being "slutty," you're a guardian of public morals and traditional values. 

Even the milder abuses Phoebe endured were clearly instances of bullying and/or social aggression. Girls joined forces to marginalize and humiliate a younger student, a newcomer with a serious mental illness. However, glaring at someone in a bathroom is not an issue for the criminal justice system; but throwing a projectile from a speeding car at a pedestrian clearly is. It doesn't matter whether the victim "stole" someone's boyfriend. Bazelon's otherwise excellent article is marred by this confusion.

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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