Was Phoebe Prince once a bully?

The new world of online cruelty.
Aug. 17 2010 7:37 AM

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 Prince on the social network site Bebo.
Phoebe Prince on the social network site Bebo

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.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

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.

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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.

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.

Dissatisfied, Gwen's mother wrote to the Irish Department of Education and Science, which sent an inquiry to Villiers. In response, the school finally called a meeting in November with Gwen's mother. But by then, she and her husband had enrolled their daughter in a different school. Phoebe had also left Villiers. When Phoebe's mother explained to the South Hadley police the cutting that precipitated Phoebe's exit from the school, she named two girls who Phoebe had told her "were at her every night." One of them was her former ally, Heather—another reminder of how quickly teenage roles and allegiances can shift.

Though her daughter was no longer a student, Gwen's mother attended the November meeting at Villiers out of concern about the school's handling of the bullying and its policies. At the meeting, she said a school official read aloud a copy of a letter Phoebe had written, in which she apologized for bringing Villiers into disrepute. "The only kid whose parents told her to apologize was Phoebe Prince," Gwen's mother said. "That's really important. She was the kid who stood up and said, I did something wrong." Gwen's mother says she expressed concern about Phoebe at the meeting. "I sat in front of the board of governors at Villiers and the principal and vice principal and I said, This child has mental health difficulties. She is at risk. I'm not just trying to make a noise about this because my child is a victim of her bullying. I'm saying this because we won't eradicate bullying until we support the bullies and the witnesses." In his statement to me, Hardy said, "the mother never brought anything to the attention of the school about real mental health problems for Phoebe."

When she looks back on all of this, Gwen feels a terrible sense of loss over Phoebe's death. "Every time I think about her being gone, it makes me sad and I'm not angry at her at all," she said, her voice breaking. "When I found out, I was expecting to be really angry and to think, I don't care. But I do care. Because I was really close to her. That's the bit that hurt most, when it all happened. We would have said we were best friends."

For Gwen's mother, the grief is mixed with a sense of missed opportunity. "I utterly empathize with Phoebe's parents," she says. "My whole reason for saying what I've said is not to come down on Phoebe. The point is that Phoebe needed support, and the people who were there at Villiers to give it to her didn't do that. They are culpable, not the kids who are facing criminal charges in South Hadley."

Hardy responded, "Villiers school is entirely satisfied with its efforts, work, and approach to both girls when they were students with us." Perhaps that helps explain the problems Phoebe and Gwen had there.

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