Was Phoebe Prince Once a Bully?
Did her school in Ireland turn a blind eye to early warnings of her troubles?
Read the rest of Emily Bazelon's series on cyberbullying.
Phoebe's father, Jeremy Prince, says that when the school called in June 2008, he "interrogated Phoebe and learned what had happened." Phoebe said that Heather set up the page and e-mailed her the password. She had the e-mail to prove it, and sent it to Villiers. Phoebe admitted she had posted on the page a photo of chicken fillets. That seems to have been a joke at Gwen's expense: In one of her letters to Hardy, her mother reported that a boy had stopped Gwen in the hall to ask "if it's true that she has chicken fillets down her bra." Phoebe's father said that the picture was the only content Phoebe posted on the fake page. "Phoebe had nothing to do with it," he told me. "She was totally exonerated by the school."
In his statement to me, Hardy indicated otherwise: "Phoebe was part of a group of three or four girls involved in a racial slur on a Bebo site. The school did intervene and deal with it. The site was closed."
Printouts Gwen's mother sent to me show nasty messages mocking her daughter on the Bebo site . The messages are between Heather and an account called "Sex On The Beach <Queen-Phoebe-Prince>," which has a picture of Phoebe. When I first talked to Jeremy Prince about the posts, he said he had doubts about whether Phoebe wrote them. But the printouts show other kids referring to Phoebe by name when they replied to Sex On The Beach. Still, to be sure she wasn't being impersonated, I called Heather. She confirmed that at Villiers, Phoebe used the name Sex On The Beach for her Bebo account. A Bebo account with the identical member ID number as Sex On The Beach now features the name Wonder Wabbit, along with a picture of Phoebe. Jeremy Prince recognized that account as his daughter's. A spokesman for Bebo told me the site does not recycle member ID numbers.
Given all of this, it seems clear that the Sex On The Beach posts were Phoebe's. When I called Mr. Prince back, he said he still had some doubt about whether Phoebe was the author. But he also said, "I'm split. I think they get a freedom on the Internet that being so young they sometimes abuse." The posts that upset Gwen and her mother are an example of exactly that. One post from Sex On The Beach reads
haha GUESS WHAT [GWEN] PAKITHINGY BLOCKED ME ON BEBO!!!!!!!!!!!!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! HOW FUNI IS DAT!!!
The Bebo pages also include the following exchange:
Sex On The Beach: and our uniform is sxual just not on [insulting play on Gwen's real name]!!! hahaha bt I rather she wear it to cover up da flab lyk oooooooooooh I hate her !!
Heather: haha ewww—why are we talking about her on my bebo that's ick!!!!!!! gawd ye wud all hate her all de lads dat commented on dis!!!!
Sex On The Beach: ew ew ew ew yah you wud hate her the paki whore!!!!!!!!!
Kids are sometimes more extreme version of themselves online, as Katie Roiphe has pointed out in the New York Times. Still, Phoebe's use of "paki whore" is striking because it's essentially the same insult that would be hurled at her by some of the six South Hadley teenagers indicted in connection with her death—they called Phoebe an "Irish whore." For those kids, the slur is a basis for the criminal charge that they violated Phoebe's civil rights—a charge with a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
Rather than making accusations, Gwen's mother was upset by the exchange on Bebo, but it didn't change her belief that Phoebe was a good kid. "I don't think Phoebe was racist," she says. "She was a really lovely girl who made the same mistakes a lot of kids do. It's that mob mentality—they do something horrid to another girl because they can." Jeremy Prince says, "One thing Phoebe would never be accused of is being racist."
The combination of Phoebe's treatment of Gwen and her problems in South Hadley appear to put her in a group of kids who are both bullies and victims. According to a 2005 study from the Netherlands, about half of bullies actually fall into this category. "The findings suggest that bully/victims demonstrate high levels of both aggression and depression," the authors write. Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin, directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center and authors of Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard, report similar findings from their 2007 survey of cyberbullying among about 2,000 middle schoolers. Again, about half the kids who self-identified as bullies said they were also victims. And the bully/victims reported significantly higher levels of anger and frustration than kids who thought of themselves as just bullies, just victims, or neither.
To Alan E. Kazdin, a Yale professor of psychology and child psychiatry (and a Slate contributor), Phoebe's involvement on both sides of the bully/victim divide is an example of "the complexity of human behavior. Some bullies are picked on and some victims are not only victims." Kazdin says bully/victims may display both aggression and anxiety or withdrawal. Most kids with disorders, or just problems, tend to exhibit either one or the other type of behavior. But there's a third group who exhibit both. "They have anxiety but they're also lashing out," Kazdin says.
To Gwen's mother, Phoebe's Bebo posts, which also included sexually provocative language, were a warning sign. She first wrote to Villiers about the bullying in June 2008, after meeting with Hardy and a teacher. In August, Hardy had not replied. Gwen's mother had to decide whether to withdraw her daughter from Villiers for the coming school year. She wrote to Hardy again. "We are concerned to know whether you do have an action plan to deal with this matter," she said. "The bullying at school has caused huge disruption to our family." At the end of August, Hardy wrote back to say he'd spoken to the parents of the students involved and that the fake Bebo page had been taken down. "We feel we have dealt with the matter as best as possible," he said. It appears that no disciplinary action was taken.
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 email@example.com or on Facebook or Twitter.
Screengrab of Phoebe Prince from Bebo.com discussion.