A 13-year-old middle school girl from the Las Vegas area city of Henderson, Nevada killed herself in December after she had allegedly been bullied by fellow students.
Here in Massachusetts, the case raises the still raw emotions of the 2010 Phoebe Prince suicide. In that case, which brought the fatal dangers of school bullying to the international forefront, the leadership of the South Hadley, Mass. school district came under fire for allegedly ignoring warning signs of Prince’s mistreatment by her classmates.
Additionally, the small town in Western Massachusetts wasn’t prepared to handle the onslaught of international press and the international magnifying glass that comes with it. It is a popularly-held belief that school leaders poorly mishandled the case before Prince’s suicide and afterward, assuming that a quick disciplining of the alleged bullies would solve the problem and appease the people watching the town. It did neither.
Flash forward to the death of Hailee Lamberth. Another young life ended; another school district seemingly with his heads stuck in the sand.
I don’t know all the facts of the investigation, and I’m not pretending to. But the school district in this case appears to have broken two MAJOR rules of crisis management — they are ignoring the victim, and denying wrongdoing without an investigation.
According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Trevon Milliard, school officials declined to investigate the possibility that Hailee had been bullied. In a meeting with Hailee’s father, Jason Lamberth, school Principal Andrea Katona said “the school had no reason to believe Hailee had been bullied,” according to the newspaper article.
(That, of course, ignores the dead 13-year-old girl’s suicide note. That’s not going to play well in the papers. Especially if you don’t back up that claim. This isn’t a stolen laptop or cheating on a test. It’s death.)
This meeting also happened in February, two months after the girl’s death, and two months after Jason Lamberth started asking school officials to meet with him.
So here’s what we have here:
- A dead 13-year-old girl who wrote in her suicide note that she had been bullied up to the day she died by a boy and two girls at her school.
- A grieving father.
- A grieving father who feels he’s been ignored.
- A school district denying that bullying occurred without doing an investigation.
- A school principal who may have broken the law by not opening an investigation within 24 hours, as required.
- School officials giving “no comment” to news reporters.
- And one of the students named in the suicide note had twice been punished this year for bullying other students.
Now let’s talk about the Las Vegas Police Department, which investigated the bullying claims. The police determined that there had, in fact, been bullying, right up to the day Hailee died, by the very students she named in her letter. But then the story says that the case was closed, and no one was arrested.
The reason for that is simple — there is no bullying law on the books in Nevada. Police didn’t have the authority to arrest anyone.
But no one from the department is quoted in the story. The story cites “police” only. Not the chief or superintendent. Not a superior officer. Not even a PIO. The police are essentially absent from the story, and because of that, some people may see the police as “part of the problem.” In reality, the only mistake the police department made was not doing a full interview with the reporter — not putting that chief up there to show leadership.
It wouldn’t have changed the legal outcome, and the chief should not have jumped on a soapbox, shouting for the need for an anti-bullying law. This wasn’t the time for that. What the chief could have done was show the readers — and Hailee’s angry father — that the police department took this case very seriously, and that they are shocked and appalled by the treatment of a child by her classmates, and that they were bound by the law (as law enforcement officers) to hand over their report to the school district, so that they could take action.
The school district took no action, and they are rightly receiving most of the blame. But police, in this case, could have showed their empathy for the victim and a bit of veiled frustration with their restrictions under the law. It’s a tight rope to walk, but when it can be done.
The case is an American tragedy that has become all too common.
Police did what they could, but they are lopped in with a school district that appears to have dropped the ball. And that’s not ok.