Read the rest of Emily Bazelon's series on cyberbullying.
In January, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince killed herself after being bullied at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. Six students have been criminally charged in connection with her death; their cases go to court in September. Last month, I wrote a long article explaining why the story of Phoebe's death is more complicated than the narrative that had taken hold in the media—that Phoebe had been tortured for months by a pack of mean girls. I argued that the serious and unusual felony charges brought against the six teens represent prosecutorial overreach, given that Phoebe had mental health troubles before the bullying began, that she was caught up in conflicts that other South Hadley kids saw as "normal girl drama," and that the bullying, while wrong, was not the "relentless" three-month campaign the district attorney described.
Before Phoebe moved to South Hadley last fall, she lived with her family in Ireland. After my story was published, I heard from parents in Ireland whose kids attended seventh and eighth grade with Phoebe at a private school called Villiers. They helped me fill in the chapter of Phoebe's life that preceded her move to the United States with her mother and sister. The Irish parents talked to me because they saw a connection between the problems Phoebe had in South Hadley and ones she had at Villiers. They feel that Phoebe didn't get the help she needed from adults at that school—help that might have made a difference for her. It's a feeling Phoebe's parents have said they share.
But Phoebe played a different role at Villiers than the one she played at South Hadley High. In seventh grade in Ireland, she acted like a bully, not a victim. This doesn't change the fact that Phoebe was later bullied herself, or that this bullying was wrong. But it does add yet another layer of complexity to her story, one that speaks to the universality and fluidity of kids' bad behavior. At the wrong moment, a generally well-meaning kid can slip into treating another child badly.
Phoebe started at Villiers as a seventh grader when she was 12. Founded in 1821, the school is located a mile from the center of Limerick. Girls wear a vest and tie. Some students are boarders and others are day students. Villiers wasn't a comfortable fit for Phoebe. In the beginning of eighth grade, she started cutting herself. According to her mother, Anne O'Brien, the cutting was the result of trouble she was having with other girls over a boy. "Phoebe called me hysterical a few times," O'Brien told the South Hadley police when they interviewed her after Phoebe's suicide. "The school did very little."
When I called Villiers headmaster Thomas Hardy to ask about O'Brien's account, he responded in a statement that the school "would have been completely unaware of any such actions." But I spoke to another mother, whose daughter was a classmate of Phoebe's and who found that hard to believe. She said Phoebe left the school shortly after a cutting incident. "The whole class was brought in a day or two later and informed Phoebe wasn't coming back," the mother said by phone from Ireland. "The school didn't discuss the whole dynamic. But the kids knew about the cutting, without a shadow of a doubt." Phoebe continued cutting herself the following fall in South Hadley. If Villiers had addressed this early incident differently, would it have changed what happened to her next?
There's no way to know. But the mother of another of Phoebe's classmates shares the sentiment that Villiers did not do enough to help Phoebe. Her story goes back to Phoebe's seventh-grade year, when her daughter, Gwen, was first a friend of Phoebe's and then a target of bullying by a group that included Phoebe. (To protect the privacy of the other girls in this piece, I am using pseudonyms.)
Gwen and her mother talked to me by phone and Gwen's mother sent me a file of letters she wrote and received from Villiers and the Irish Department of Education between June and November 2008. Attached were printouts of pages from Bebo, a social networking site similar to MySpace that's popular among kids in Europe. On Bebo and in school, Gwen and her mother said, Phoebe was part of a group of former friends who turned on Gwen, ostracizing and bullying her over the course of a painful spring. The other Villiers mother I spoke to about Phoebe's departure from the school corroborated their account.
Phoebe and Gwen were friends during their first semester of school together. Over a school holiday, Gwen's mother took both girls on a hiking holiday. "I immediately engaged with her," Gwen's mother remembers. "She was very clever and really lovely."
But in the spring, the relationship between Phoebe and Gwen soured. They clashed over a boy; Gwen went out with him briefly, she says, and Phoebe got angry. About four other girls joined in and made Gwen miserable between about March 2008 and the end of school in June. "I'd come to school and they'd all be there, making up horrid songs about me, going around singing them to everyone. It just never stopped," Gwen remembers. "They all kind of like followed each other. Phoebe and Heather [not her real name] made up most of the stuff, laughing about it, making jokes. One time, we were in English class and we had to write an essay. Phoebe wrote about a girl and called her a slut who stole her boyfriend. She said in front of the whole class that it was me. I hadn't even kissed a boy yet."
In a letter to the board of governors of Villiers, Gwen's mother described how her daughter cried at school and cried at home and how she asked not to go back to school. The other mother of a classmate said of the bullying, "Phoebe was involved. Having said that, she would have been the least offender. She kind of tagged along."
In June, a friend called Gwen to tell her about a page on Bebo called "[Gwen] Pakistan—Paki girl 08." (Gwen's father is from a country in the Middle East.) Gwen didn't want to look at it, so her mother did. She found sexual language and slurs. On Bebo, when Heather was asked if she'd made the page, she responded, "Ma an Phoebe hahahahahah." ("Ma" stands for "me.") Gwen's mother showed the page to the Villiers headmaster, Hardy, and he contacted the parents of three girls, including Phoebe.