What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince?

Could the South Hadley Schools Have Done More?
The new world of online cruelty.
July 20 2010 10:13 PM

What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince?

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In Part 1 of the article, Emily Bazelon reveals  the untold story of Phoebe Prince.

Michael Cahillane is a protégé of D.A. Elizabeth Scheibel and is running to succeed her when she leaves office in November. Until mid-June, when he stepped down to campaign, Cahillane worked on the cases against the six teens charged in relation to Phoebe Prince's death, a spokesperson for Cahillane's campaign named Matt Baron told me. Baron also said, "Mike's position is that D.A.s wouldn't have to bring cases like this if schools were doing their jobs."

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

In other words, Scheibel and her staff stepped in because they thought South Hadley High mishandled the lead-up to and the aftermath of Phoebe's death. Does that amount to penalizing teenagers because the adults failed to do so? Did the school do enough to keep a special eye on Phoebe, given her history? Did it deal too leniently with the students accused of bullying her? "We all abhor bullying. The question is how to prevent it and how to deal with it," says William Newman, director of the Western Massachusetts ACLU office, which is not involved in the bullying cases. "When it comes to bad behavior in and around schools, the criminal law is the last place to which we should turn. It is a grossly blunt instrument. It's horribly sad that Phoebe Prince committed suicide. But the question is, are there more lives that have to be irreparably damaged because of that?"

The South Hadley school district does bear some responsibility here. At the start of the school year, when Anne O'Brien enrolled Phoebe, she told a guidance counselor, Jane Rathbun, that her daughter had been bullied in Ireland, that her grades had suffered, and that she was taking antidepressants. Rathbun relayed some of this information to Sally Watson-Menkel, the counselor, and to Principal Smith, but the records suggest that the information may not have been given to other school counselors and administrators who might have been in positions to help Phoebe. Principal Smith and another counselor, Eileen Kakley, told the police about the school's Student Assistance Team, through which counselors, administrators, and the nurse meet to share information about students having academic, emotional, or behavioral issues. "The purpose is to discuss cases so that we are all on the same page," Kakley said. But she couldn't remember Phoebe's name coming up at any meeting the team held before her death last fall or winter, Kakley told the police, and confirmed to me when I spoke to her. It appears that there was no coordinated, broader effort at the school to help Phoebe. When I asked Smith about this, he said, "Individual support was being provided to Phoebe by the counselor and the nurse. It was happening at that level." After Phoebe's suicide attempt in November, he said, the school didn't see the need to do more, "because she seemed to be doing pretty well when she came back. We have a number of kids who experience traumas during the year, and we have to do our best for all those kids."

How much more would have been reasonable to expect of the school? "Probably most of us in the mental health profession would say that the people who form the school counseling team—the nurse, the licensed social worker, the guidance counselors—should be meeting regularly to talk about kids of concern and have ways to communicate to the administration, so if there is an alarm about a kid, there's a process in place for alerting everyone," says Robert King, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale who has studied teen suicide. King also wondered whether Watson-Menkel asked Phoebe key questions on the morning before she died, when they were talking about the mark on her chest. For example, did the counselor ask if Phoebe was thinking of hurting herself? Did she ask to talk to Phoebe's therapist? On this point, in her interview with the police, Watson-Menkel said that she told Phoebe "that I was concerned about her health and safety" and told O'Brien over the phone "about our medical and mental health concerns."

Like many high schools, South Hadley has struggled with how to handle bullying. Because it's hard to police the behavior of older teenagers, high schools sometimes default to inaction. "It's a systemic problem in American education: If they're over 12 years old, they're on their own," says Elizabeth Englander, a psychologist at Bridgewater State College who does bullying prevention research and training throughout Massachusetts. "There's a lack of recognition that if you're 15 or 16 or 17, you still need adults to guide you."

Beyond disciplining individual students, South Hadley had taken only small steps to address bullying, despite a history of trouble with it. In 2005, 30 percent of South Hadley High students reported that they'd been bullied in the last year, in a survey designed by the Centers for Disease Control. That rate was higher than it had been two years earlier, when 24 percent of students said they'd been bullied, and also higher than the Massachusetts average of 23 percent. "How long can the school department ignore the increasing rate of bullying before reality sets in?" two students at the time asked in an editorial in the school newspaper. "How many more harassed kids will it take, how many more enraged parents, how many cases of depression, and how many attempted suicides?"

Five years later, a few months before Phoebe's suicide, the South Hadley schools invited Barbara Coloroso, author of the best-selling self-help book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander to give a workshop for teachers and a presentation to parents. Coloroso was paid $9,000, school officials told me. She gave an all-day lecture to the teachers. Afterward, some of them complained about too many hours spent listening and too many buzzwords. At her session for parents, attendance was low. In October, at the urging of Nina, the girl who'd been bullied in middle school, Assistant Principal Bill Evans started a group to address bullying (nicknamed the E-Crew, for Evans). A small group of kids started planning an assembly for the middle school at which they'd tell their stories. But they weren't sure how to take on the topic with their own peers.

Publicly, the school floundered in the wake of Phoebe's suicide. School superintendent Gus Sayer, the district's public face, was vague and ill at ease on local television, his eyes darting away from the camera. Coloroso criticized the district, saying that students had told her that Phoebe's bullies "are still walking around the hallways." The school's internal investigation into Phoebe's death led to suspensions (pending expulsion hearings) for Ashley in January and for Sean and Kayla in early February, according to records. (It appears that these students withdrew before they were expelled.) Confidentiality laws barred the school from explaining any of this publicly, but Sayer didn't effectively explain those constraints, leaving an information vacuum that suggested the school had done little or nothing to punish Phoebe's tormentors.

Meanwhile, other South Hadley kids and their parents were coming forward to talk about experiences of bullying. In this ABC clip, two girls describe leaving the school because of their unhappiness. A third, Becky Brouillard, talked in the clip about bullying in South Hadley. After her appearance, Ashley stormed up to her in school, told her to stop talking to reporters, and slammed her into a locker, according to administrators. Ashley was suspended for this as well as for her part in bullying Phoebe, but her outburst looked like more evidence that South Hadley High was out of control.

Awful postings appeared on a Facebook memorial page for Phoebe—"she deserved it" and "accomplished," according to the Boston Globe. On formspring.me, another social networking site, posts like this one showed up: "why do u act like phoebe was ur best friend when everyone saw u call her and irish whore on twitter and facebook. dont act like u didnt bc everyone saw it." (The page has since been taken down.)

As frustration mounted, some people in town became convinced that the school district was stonewalling. One of them was Darby O'Brien (no relation to Anne O'Brien), who grew up in nearby Holyoke and runs an ad agency. O'Brien shared Phoebe's Irish heritage and had a track record of championing local underdog causes, like opposition to a casino that developers in Springfield heavily favored. He'd never met Superintendent Sayer or Principal Smith. But O'Brien thought he understood what was happening: The school administrators were covering for one another. "I think they want to forget about it—look the other way, move on," he said.

O'Brien called Kevin Cullen, a Boston Globe columnist who'd been the paper's correspondent in Ireland. In a column on Jan. 24 called "The Untouchable Mean Girls," Cullen wrote, "School officials say there are three investigations going on. They say these things take time. That doesn't explain why the Mean Girls who tortured Phoebe remain in school, defiant, unscathed." Three days later, parents lined up at the microphone at an evening school committee meeting to blast the district and tell their own stories. It was a mix of present and past grievances. Becky Brouillard's father said his daughter had been bullied since eighth grade. An alum of South Hadley High said, in a choked voice, "I spent from third grade on in absolute misery and terror." A parent, Luke Gelinas, addressed the school committee and Sayer. "Wouldn't we all agree that you have failed," Gelinas said. His voice rose to a shout, "Until someone stands up and admits there has been failure here—complete failure—we have nowhere to go." The audience applauded.

As the national media picked up the story, O'Brien and Gelinas started calling for Smith's and Sayer's resignations. The school committee, led by President Ed Boisselle, dug in to support the administrators. No one from the district's leadership attended a benefit to raise money for a memorial fund for Phoebe. (Smith said that Phoebe's family, through their lawyer, asked the school not to post information about the banquet, and so he thought they didn't want any school involvement.) When a resident asked at a public meeting whether anyone had called the Prince family to offer condolences, Boisselle refused to answer.

In late February, protests were expected at a meeting of the school committee called to form an anti-bullying taskforce. Instead, a couple of parents passed out "I Support Dan Smith" stickers as about 500 people filled the high-school auditorium. When Smith rose to speak, he choked up as the applause built to a standing ovation. But about a quarter of the audience sat stony-faced.

After Smith's speech, most of the angry parents left, while other people broke into smaller groups to discuss different parts of the taskforce's mission. I went to the library and listened to a frank discussion among three dozen parents about the pitfalls of raising a child in the smartphone era. It had moments of both humor and anguish. The parents wanted guidance—they wanted it forced on them. "We have to take a two-hour class now for our kids to get a driver's license," said one mother in a blue Patagonia jacket. "Isn't there a way to do that for how kids use the Internet—mandate it so that we have to take a class with them? I had to have my daughter show me how to get into Facebook."

Another mother asked if the school could prevent students from using their cell phones during school by turning the campus into a dead zone. A girl with blond hair piped up: "No one gets service if they have T-Mobile. If you want to block your kid's access, get him that." The room broke into laughter and parents signed up to keep helping with the taskforce. For a moment, I thought that even though the dissidents were missing, maybe South Hadley was ready to mount a public health campaign against cruelty, in school and online.

But over the next several weeks, attendance at the taskforce meetings dwindled. Then, at the end of March, the town woke up to news that proved more explosive even than Phoebe's suicide: Scheibel's announcement of the indictments of the six teens charged in connection to Phoebe's death.

***

If Phoebe's death prompted a wave of media attention, Scheibel's charges brought a tsunami. In it drowned any hope of an honest discussion about grief and responsibility. The Prince family hasn't spoken publicly since Phoebe's death. Nor, with the exception of Sharon's mother, have the families of the kids who were charged. That left the field to the bullies' accusers and to the school district, which was restricted by confidentiality laws and was ill-prepared to handle the press. The result was a spring of recrimination and stonewalling, not healing.

Scheibel didn't charge any adults. But in her press conference about the charges against the six teenagers, she had called the actions of the high-school staff "troublesome." Armed with the D.A.'s critique, Darby O'Brien and Luke Gelinas took their case for Smith's and Sayer's resignations to national television.

Sayer and school committee president Ed Boisselle reacted defensively. Countering Scheibel's claim that the bullying of Phoebe was "common knowledge" among the students, Boisselle retorted: "Did they go interview all 700 kids at the school and found out that more than 300 knew about it?" Responding to Scheibel's "troublesome" remark, Sayer said to the Today show's Matt Lauer: "She'll have to explain what's troublesome. It is not—it's not troublesome to me." (Scheibel shot back, "Mr. Sayer does not have access to some of our investigative materials; therefore, he can't have a basis for some of his comments.") Next, Sayer tried pleading ignorance. "The kids have a way of communicating with each other without us knowing about it,'' he said. Under Anderson Cooper's stern eye, Sayer made excuses, saying that because Phoebe hadn't reported the bullying, the school's hands had been tied.

It was a losing strategy. The editorial page of the Boston Globe weighed in: "Rather than declare 'we did everything we could,' as Sayer did, he should launch a new probe to determine what signals were missed and why. If teachers truly didn't know of the bullying until a week before the suicide, how might they have learned earlier? If some knew and failed to take sufficient action, what might have prompted them to do so?"

South Hadley was cast in the media as the bullying capital of the world. The attention was outsized in part, perhaps, because of the fresh-faced photos of Phoebe, with her sparkly eyes and smile. Many children who are victims of bullying are disabled or just not beautiful: Phoebe looked like a girl anyone would want to befriend, or date, or mother. And it probably mattered, too, that she was white and middle class, as Stephanie Bergman suggested in the Lowell Sun. In June, Bergman counted 811 news stories about Phoebe in 45 countries (not counting tabloids or small local papers) compared with 74 stories about Carl Walker-Hoover, the black 11-year-old from Springfield who killed himself last year after classmates taunted him for being gay.

Meanwhile, the kids of South Hadley High were trying to make sense of Phoebe's death and its aftermath. To some degree, they did this on their own: The school district didn't bring in an outside expert to launch an anti-bullying effort. The Gay-Straight Student Alliance sponsored a week about respect and civility. (The president of the student body, Kaden Belanger, is a transgender 17-year-old who strongly supports the school administration.) One day in April, on the three-month anniversary of Phoebe's death, the students held an impromptu peace rally. A few weeks later, the E-Crew put together a high-school event called Sending Sincerity, in which students could send one another compliments on a postcard. For each postcard sent, students got a paper heart to stick on a school wall, and the outline of a vase drawn to contain them overflowed.

But by the end of June, when the school committee met for the last time, only a handful of parents who'd stuck with the bullying taskforce were on hand to deliver its recommendations about the adoption of a high-school program to combat bullying. The district hadn't settled on a bullying prevention program for the fall—though this time, that wasn't necessarily the fault of administrators. In May, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill requiring every school in the state to offer such a curriculum. Lawmakers stipulated that to qualify, a program must be "evidence based"—meaning that it should be anchored in research findings on bullying. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recently offered some guidance to resources it considers reputable but no list of approved programs.  

And so in May, the South Hadley schools weren't sure how to address bullying next year. Instead, Gelinas called for Sayer's and Smith's resignations one more time. Then everyone went home.

***

It's still possible for some good to come out of Phoebe Prince's death. It was her suicide, along with Walker-Hoover's, that prompted Massachusetts to pass its anti-bullying law this spring, and if that law is implemented wisely, it could turn the state into a laboratory for testing different prevention programs. The timing is good. The earlier wave of American awareness about bullying, which followed Columbine and other school shootings in the 1990s, predates the Internet. Bullying on Facebook and by instant message has exacerbated the problem: Kids can now impulsively press "send" and do a lot of damage. And because bullying can now take place on Facebook or a cell phone, its victims can't escape it, even in their own homes. Cyberbullying played a secondary role in Phoebe's death, but the way in which it gave students another vehicle for taunting and ganging up on her is typical. Schools and researchers have to figure out how bullying has changed in the digital age and what to do about that. Massachusetts could lead the way.

But whatever the benefits to other kids down the line, the immediate question in South Hadley is what will happen this fall to the six kids facing charges. "Justice for Phoebe" reads a local bumper sticker, signaling the pro-prosecution mood in town. But do the facts uncovered in the police investigation really make any kind of case for criminal retribution? Should teenagers be held responsible for acting out toward a girl who turned out to be far more unstable than any of them truly understood?

In the end, the next chapter of the South Hadley bullying story isn't really about innocence versus guilt. It's about proportional versus disproportional punishment. All of the kids accused of hurting Phoebe Prince have been kicked out of school. They have been the focus of intense, public rage. They've been blamed for the suicide of a vulnerable, troubled girl. They will live with this always. Maybe that is already enough.

In a blog post, Emily Bazelon responds to criticism from District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel after this article was published. In another blog post, Bazelon gives a law professor's take on Scheibel's criticism.

Coming soon: For schools and parents, what are the best tactics for preventing bullying?

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