The Blame Game
Should the school officials involved in the Phoebe Prince bullying case lose their jobs?
In the midst of the national uproar over the criminal charges filed against nine teenagers accused of bullying 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide in January, a small local event is unfolding much more quietly today: An election for school committee, as the school board is called in South Hadley, Mass., where Phoebe went to school. Even as criticism bombards the school district from outside, the school committee chairman who has publically questioned the district attorney's characterization of the facts is running unopposed. Edward Boisselle will keep his seat, it seems, no matter what the district attorney or the editorial writers or TV interviewers say. (One other school committee member is also running unopposed, but he hasn't defended administrators.) The election captures how different a problem like bullying can look from close up than it does from far away.
When District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel charged the nine teens in late March, she said that Phoebe had endured a three-month campaign of bullying that was "common knowledge" among the students at the high school. She also said that "the investigation has revealed that certain faculty, staff, and administrators of the high school also were alerted to the harassment of Phoebe Prince before her death." Boisselle and Superintendent Gus Sayer have responded with what looks from the outside like a completely tone-deaf series of scoffs and denials. "Did they go interview all 700 kids at the school and found out that more than 300 knew about it? Isn't that the only way you could tell that they factually knew about it?" Boisselle asked in the Boston Herald. In print interviews and on CNN, Sayer has stuck to the oddly unapologetic line that the high school did all it could for Phoebe. Administrators and teachers just didn't really know or understand what was going on. "The kids have a way of communicating with each other without us knowing about it,'' he said. "They really have their own world."
This is meant as a defense, rather than an admission of lameness, even though after a suicide you'd think that the school would do some soul searching about why administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors didn't fully comprehend what was happening to a vulnerable student. This professed ignorance is also factually at odds with the account of Phoebe's mother, who has said she asked the school in November whether kids were threatening her daughter and then went back to talk to school officials about Phoebe in the first week of January. Sayer's claim also doesn't line up with the accounts of students who I've talked to. They say they saw Phoebe standing outside a classroom in tears and heard her crying in the nurse's office the day she died, as some students also told the New York Times.
Luke Gelinas, a parent who has called for the resignation of Sayer and Principal Dan Smith, told me he met with Sayer last Friday morning. "I told him I'd heard from Darby O'Brien, the spokesman for the Prince family, that during the intake process in September, when Phoebe was brought to the school, it was made known to them that she was prone to bullying and that she should have regular counseling and checkups to make sure she's OK. Sayer confirmed that for me. But no counselors reached out to her until three months later." This hasn't been reported elsewhere, so I called Sayer's office to check on it. I haven't heard back.
None of the evidence makes South Hadley High School directly responsible for Phoebe's death. We don't know much about other precipitating factors in her life (and because of privacy laws, the school can't talk about that part of the story). But it would be a lot more reassuring—and a lot smarter, public-relationswise—if Sayer were using his TV time to explain how the school is doing its utmost to figure out why no one there put together all the pieces about Phoebe. If the school had been warned she was vulnerable; if certain teachers saw flashes of her distress; if the nurse (and a guidance counselor, according to Principal Dan Smith) saw others, why didn't anyone connect the dots? By not naming any adult at the school, Scheibel in a sense implicated all of them. That's causing a lot of frustration and grief among teachers and other adults at the school. At the same time, no one I've talked to thinks it's right for nine kids to be criminally charged while all the adults involved walk away.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.
Photograph of Gus Sayer from the Springfield (Mass.) Republican.