The Setting, The Story, The Students

The Setting:
The public school where this incident took place is located in a suburb bordering upon a major city. Families living in the neighborhood surrounding the school range from working class to affluent, and a small percentage of students are bused to the school from the city as part of a long-standing desegregation program.

The Story:
The following description of the incident is based on interviews with the students and teachers involved.

In December of seventh grade in a public school, Sue and Rhonda considered each other best friends. They belonged to a popular group of girls, including Jill, Patty, *Tina and others.  All of these girls had known one another for most of elementary school, except for Tina, who had just moved to the school.

One day, Sue wrote a note to Rhonda saying that she thought their friend, Jill, was, "stupid to break up with her boyfriend."   Also In the note, Sue asked Rhonda to keep the note private because she had not yet told Jill herself that she felt that way about her break-up. Nevertheless, Rhonda told Jill what Sue had written anyway.  When Jill found out about Sue’s note, she confronted Sue after school, and they argued in front of many peers. School staff heard the argument and broke it up.

Although the argument was brief, the fight snowballed resulting in many students joining together against Sue.  Rhonda and Tina sided with Jill, and they influenced other girls to do the same.

For the rest of seventh grade and almost all of eighth grade, these girls excluded Sue from her former group of friends, teased and put her down, avoided and ignored her, spread rumors about her, wrote hurtful letters and made prank telephone calls to her home. Other students, including some boys who were not originally involved, joined in. Most students, if they did not participate directly, kept Sue at a distance and did not stand up for her. Lorna, a girl who had not been a member of this popular group when the ostracism began, was one of the few students who tried to help Sue feel welcome within her group of friends.  Nevertheless, Sue went from being a very strong student to getting poor grades and not wanting to go to school.

When adults became aware of the situation, they tried to help. School administrators and a guidance counselor had many conversations with each of the girls and their parents. Some teachers addressed the ostracism directly or indirectly in their teaching. Peer mediators and their advisor from a local high school were invited to help the girls to resolve the situation. None of these strategies, however, significantly improved the situation, and some students felt the adults’ involvement made things worse.

The ostracism continued when the students returned to school in the fall of eighth grade. Ms. Smith, their eighth grade Language Arts teacher, was well aware of what had been happening among the students. She gave much thought to the issues raised by Sue’s exclusion and how she could touch on the idea of friendship, peer groups, power and responsibility through what she taught.

Sue and Rhonda both told us that their relationship had improved by the end of eighth grade, although neither of them appeared to have much awareness about how things improved.

*Although Tina was friends with some of the other girls, and played a role in the incident, she was not interviewed as part of the evaluation study.

The Students and a Teacher:
The following descriptions of the students in the case study are intended to provide a minimal amount of contextual information for engaging in thoughtful discourse around the themes and issues raised. It is not our intention to reduce individuals to a set of externally-defined categories such as race, class, and social status.

*Please note that the names of the students have been changed to protect their privacy.

  • Patty, a white girl from a middle class family, did not see herself as a leader among her friends.
  • Rhonda, an African American girl from an urban, working class family, saw herself as a leader among her friends.
  • Jill, a white girl from an upper-middle class family, did not see herself as having much influence on others.
  • Sue, an Asian American girl from a working class family, was a leader among her friends until her argument with Jill.
  • Lorna, an African American student from an urban, working class family, was not close friends with the other girls described above.
  • Ms. Smith taught a ten-week Facing History and Ourselves unit as part of her eighth-grade Language Arts course at the school where the conflict took place. The students involved in this case study were in her class.

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