Six South Hadley teenagers are charged with bullying Phoebe Prince. What about the adults who knew it was going on?

The new world of online cruelty.
March 30 2010 6:48 PM

Suicide in South Hadley

Six teenagers have been charged with bullying Phoebe Prince. What about the adults who knew it was going on?

See Emily Bazelon's special report on the untold story of Phoebe Prince and her suicide. Read the rest of Bazelon's series on cyberbullying.

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But the timeline doesn't entirely line up: The DA said the bullying campaign went on for three months; school officials said they only learned of it in the last week before Phoebe's death. Nor do the results of the district attorney's investigation jibe with the consequences of school's internal probe. Because of privacy laws, it's not clear which students were disciplined or how seriously. A few left the school, according to Superintendent Sayer. At least one has reportedly transferred to another high school. A couple of others were being homeschooled. But several of the teens whom Scheibel charged had been attending classes at South Hadley this week, I'm told by parents who didn't want to give their names because of anger in the town about talking to the press. How to explain the discrepancy between the criminal charges that came raining down and the back-to-normal feeling at the high school, where the anti-bullying taskforce was dutifully meeting, but with dwindling numbers, and without the guidance of an outside expert, to the frustration of the school's critics?

Recall that taskforce meeting in February. Protesters were expected to call for the superintendent and the principals' resignations. Instead, the school district's supporters came en masse. They handed out "I Support Dan Smith" stickers and gave the principal a standing ovation. Some people sat stony-faced, but the majority clapped. When Smith rose to speak, he choked up. "What's been happening has to stop in our community," he said. "I look around and see a lot of soldiers tonight, which is good. We need you." He described how the anti-bullying taskforce would organize itself going forward, and asked for volunteers. He concluded, "I'm really hopeful for our kids—for their good, which so many of you are here about, and that it's time to move on."

The criminal charges mean that South Hadley won't be moving on. Like it or not, the town will be taking a long, deep look back as its critics have wanted since Phoebe's death. The charges alone, however, won't solve the problem of bullying going forward: Every expert I've talked to says that fighting bullying is never as simple as merely identifying the out-of-control kids. And it's hard to see how only a bunch of teenagers can take the fall for what Scheibel has identified as a broader school failure. She said on Monday that she doesn't think the staff, teachers, or administrators committed a crime. She also said, "nevertheless, the actions, or inactions, of some adults at the school are troublesome."

That's a call for asking a lot more questions about which adults knew what, and when, in South Hadley. Elizabeth Scheibel is herself a product of South Hadley—according to her online bio, "she worked at a local restaurant, sold sweaters in a local clothing store, graduated from South Hadley High School"—and she clearly is in the camp that thinks the town can move forward only when it has held those who bullied Phoebe Prince accountable for their actions. Another bit from her bio that resonates: "A lawyer friend who has known her since kindergarten remembered how she beat up a bully who was picking on her younger brother, commenting, 'Even in her youth she wasn't afraid to hold her position and pursue justice as she saw it.' "

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Corrections, June 17, 2010: Because of confusion over delinquency charges filed in juvenile court, this article originally stated that nine teenagers—rather than six—had been charged. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also originally misidentified Sean's girlfriend as Ashley Longe. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) Sharon Chanon Velazquez's name was misspelled, and Kayla's and Ashley's names were reversed. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)