What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince?
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One week last October, Bill Evans, the assistant principal of South Hadley High School in Massachusetts, chose two students to read public service announcements over the loudspeaker as part of the school's participation in National Bullying Prevention Awareness Week. In selecting kids to read the PSAs, Evans thought about who would be a spokesperson that other kids would believe was speaking sincerely. He chose Sean Mulveyhill, a senior and star of the football team. "He was a natural selection—the kind of kid who would seek out someone having difficulty just to help him," Evans says.
In his PSA, Sean laid out four steps that victims of cyberbullying can take: Don't return nasty texts or IMs. Make copies of them. Set up filters to block the bully from sending more. Talk to a caring adult. Sean's message ended: "Remember that when you are targeted by a person or group of people, whether online or face-to-face, you are not alone and you can take action to make it stop."
"Sean read it. I think he meant it," Evans says.
Six months later, Sean Mulveyhill became one of five South Hadley students facing serious criminal charges for bullying Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old ninth grader who came to the town from Ireland in September and killed herself in January. (Sean and a sixth student, Austin Renaud, were also charged with statutory rape.) The charges turned the six students into international symbols of callow teenage evil. Their names and pictures appeared on the evening news and on the national morning shows. They were kicked out of school. Sean lost a football scholarship to college. They are all facing pretrial proceedings in September, with the possibility of prison time if they're convicted.
If you've read about the death of Phoebe Prince and its aftermath in People magazine or the Boston Globe or Boston Herald or the Irish Independent, or watched TV segments about the case, the image of Sean reading an anti-bullying message might seem like further evidence that bad kids were running the show at South Hadley High. But what if that's wrong? What if Sean was in fact a strong kid who had looked out for weaker ones? What if there was no pack of untouchable mean girls ruling the halls of South Hadley High, as the Boston Globe column that kicked off national coverage of the case suggested?
I've been reporting in South Hadley since February, as part of a series on cyberbullying. There is no question that some of the teenagers facing criminal charges treated Phoebe cruelly. But not all of them did. And it's hard to see how any of the kids going to trial this fall ever could have anticipated the consequences of their actions, for Phoebe or for themselves. Should we send teenagers to prison for being nasty to one another? Is it really fair to lay the burden of Phoebe's suicide on these kids?
District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel believes it is. The most serious charge against five of the teenagers—Sean, Ashley Longe, Kayla Narey, Sharon Chanon Velazquez, and Flannery Mullins—is civil rights violation with bodily injury. Defense lawyers expect Scheibel to argue that Phoebe's civil rights were violated because she was called an "Irish slut"—a denigration of her national origin—and because the bullying interfered with her right to an education. The bodily injury, the defense lawyers say, is Phoebe's death by suicide. The maximum penalty for this charge is 10 years in prison. The teens are also charged with other crimes, including criminal harassment and stalking. All six teens have pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Emily Bazelon discusses the case on NBC's Today show.
My investigation into the events that gave rise to Phoebe's death, based on extensive interviews and review of law enforcement records, reveals the uncomfortable fact that Phoebe helped set in motion the conflicts with other students that ended in them turning on her. Her death was tragic, and she shouldn't have been bullied. But she was deeply troubled long before she ever met the six defendants. And her own behavior made other students understandably upset.
I've wrestled with how much of this information to publish. Phoebe's family has suffered terribly. But when the D.A. charged kids with causing Phoebe's death and threatened them with prison, she invited an inquiry into other potential causes. The whole story is a lot more complicated than anyone has publicly allowed for. The events that led to Phoebe's death show how hard it is for kids, parents, and schools to cope with bullying, especially when the victim is psychologically vulnerable. The charges against the students show how strong the impulse is to point fingers after a suicide, how hard it is to assess blame fairly, and how ill-suited police and prosecutors can be to punishing bullies.
Phoebe Prince moved to South Hadley last fall from a tiny seaside hamlet in County Clare, Ireland, where she'd lived since she was 2. South Hadley, a town of 17,000, has a sizable Irish population. It is home to Mt. Holyoke College, and Hampshire, Smith, and UMass are all nearby. But the academics tend to live in Amherst and Northampton. The parents in South Hadley are more likely to own their own businesses or work as nurses or teachers or cops. The town has a median income of about $77,000 and is 94 percent white.
Phoebe came to South Hadley with her mother, who is a secondary school teacher, and her then-12-year-old sister. Phoebe's parents were separating; her father, a writer who'd gone into advertising, stayed behind. Phoebe missed him. In an essay for English class written in October, you can feel her longing for her father: "I curl up on a chair adjacent from my father making sure to be cosily tucked in near the fire. He puts down his book and says, 'Now what is on your mind tonight my dear?' … No subject is off limits with me and my father."
Last fall, Phoebe went to the school library to find Dante's Inferno for a school report. When the librarian apologized for having only an old, inaccessible translation, Phoebe said her father could help her because he knew Latin and some Italian. But when she wrote about a book for English in October, she chose not a classic but Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation, by the lecturer and psychotherapist Steven Levenkron. In her essay, she wrestled with the discussion of emotional pain in the book: "From a personal point of view I can see that Levenkron does truly understand the concept of self mutilation and how it's not about suicide in most cases it's about trying to transfer the pain from emotional to physical pain which is a lot easier to deal with for most adolescents who most likely don't even understand how they're feeling."
Phoebe's mother, Anne O'Brien, told the police that her daughter started cutting herself in 2008, while she was at a private Irish boarding school. A close friend of Phoebe's in Ireland told the police that she and Phoebe both had trouble with other girls because they were dating older boys. "Phoebe said she couldn't take the other girls … at her every night," O'Brien told the police. "Phoebe was the type of kid who would never fight back."
When Phoebe's parents learned about the cutting, they pulled Phoebe out of boarding school and enrolled her locally at Mary Immaculate Secondary School, where O'Brien taught, according to the Irish Independent. There, too, Phoebe had a falling out with a girl over a boy. "Eventually it got so bad that Phoebe went through three or four months where none of the girls would talk to her," her mother said. By February 2009, Phoebe was cutting herself again, and in May she started taking Prozac, O'Brien told the police. (I tried to reach Phoebe's parents through a family friend and through their lawyers. One of the lawyers, Robert Leonard, called me back and said: "I would like to make clear our opposition to the publication of any non-public information concerning the decedent," meaning Phoebe.)
In South Hadley, Phoebe got a new start. Kids liked her. "She was really easy to make friends with, very sociable," a boy who was a ninth grader last year told me. "She hung out with whoever she wanted right away." She also thrived academically. "I thought I had my old Phoebe back," O'Brien told the police. "She was talking and participating and writing. She was excited that in this country you could talk and express yourself in class."
The narrative that's emerged since Phoebe's death is that because she was new to the school and popular with boys, a pack of jealous, predatory kids—"the South Hadley Six"—went after her en masse. But that's not the story the police interviews tell, and it's not how many of the students I talked to see it. Even kids who are relieved that Phoebe's death has pushed the school to do more to prevent bullying don't recognize the storyline that took hold in the media. "I'm upset and angry that bullying wasn't taken more seriously here before this," says Nina, almost 16, who was taunted for being a "poseur" by a group of girls in middle school. (I have changed the names of kids who talked to me but have not already been identified in the press.) But Phoebe's death "has been turned into this Lifetime movie plot. It's so unlike what actually happened."
What actually happened, in the eyes of many of the students I've talked to, is that Phoebe got into separate conflicts with different kids. That doesn't excuse the other kids' bad behavior in response to Phoebe's actions. But it was one source of the trouble. Social scientists generally define bullying as repeated acts of abuse that involve a power imbalance. Is that what happened to Phoebe? "In the end you can call it bullying," says one adult at the school. "But to the other kids, Phoebe was the one with the power. She was attracting guys away from relationships." (Because of the hyper-publicity surrounding this case, I was able to talk to staff at the school only on condition of anonymity.)
The problems with other kids in South Hadley started around November. By then, Phoebe had met Sean Mulveyhill, now 18, who would give her rides to school. Sean was drawn to Phoebe. "I think Phoebe appealed to Sean because she seemed to gravitate toward deep conversations—let's talk about life," another adult at the school says. But Sean had previously dated 17-year-old Kayla Narey, a field hockey player who'd lost her father, a master plumber, two years earlier. Sean and Kayla were talking about getting back together. "It was a complicated thing," Sean told the police in late January. "Kayla and I were talking, but we weren't dating, I also was not dating Phoebe, but we were friends" who were intimately involved. In a statement that's typical of the positions the accused students' lawyers have taken publically, Colin Keefe, defense counsel for Ashley, said in April: "When all the details become known, I am certain that my client will be cleared of these charges.")
Around the same time, O'Brien was letting Phoebe spend one night a week alone in their small apartment, while she and her younger daughter went to her sister's house in Springfield. After one weekend, O'Brien found out from a neighbor about a party Phoebe had hosted while she was away. Phoebe admitted that some of the kids brought alcohol and were smoking pot. She said she had smoked hash. The police were called, some kids said in their police interviews after her death. O'Brien said she stopped letting Phoebe stay alone after that.
Also in November, O'Brien renewed Phoebe's prescription for Prozac and took her to be evaluated at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, where a doctor prescribed Seroquel. The drug is used to treat mood disorders. A week or so later, Sean tried to break off his relationship with Phoebe. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, he drove to her house and they talked in her garage. Afterward Phoebe came into the living room and told her mother she'd swallowed the bottle of Seroquel. O'Brien drove her to Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, talking to her daughter to keep her awake. Phoebe was hospitalized for the next week. A counselor at the school told the police she had gone into organ failure (which, according to psychiatrists I talked to, suggests she might have also overdosed on a medication like Tylenol).
In the beginning of December, Sean and Kayla started dating exclusively. About a week later, Phoebe came up to Kayla in school. She said that she knew Sean had told Kayla that he and Phoebe had had sex, and she was sorry. But Kayla hadn't known. She texted a breakup message to Sean. But she didn't turn on Phoebe at this point. "I thought it was brave of Phoebe to tell me that, seeing that she was new to the school and a freshman," Kayla told the police.
Sean and Kayla soon got back together, but Sean was angry with Phoebe; he thought she'd tried to derail his relationship. When Phoebe came up to him in the hallway, he turned around and walked the other way. After that, he stopped talking to her.
In December, Phoebe became interested in another senior football player, 18-year-old Austin Renaud. His father had died suddenly a few years earlier, and that made him a good listener for Phoebe. "Austin was sensitive to Phoebe being depressed," says Christine, now 18, a friend of Sean's and Austin's. "She talked to him about it. They had a short-lived relationship and after that they were still friends." Austin told the police that he and Phoebe didn't have sex, but that she talked to him about her November suicide attempt. "She told me about her problems," he said. "She said she missed her father."
The problem with Phoebe's involvement with Austin was that he had a serious girlfriend—Flannery Mullins, now 17. Flannery mattered a great deal to Austin, students and adults say. "Austin was an angry kid for a long time," one of the adults at the school says. "But he had really come a long way. He was poised to get his diploma at the end of the summer. This thing with Phoebe, it appeared to throw him. Because he seemed really committed to Flannery. She was pretty well grounded and she had good connections in school with other adults. I think she was good for Austin."
One night in early January, Flannery made an apparent reference to Phoebe on her Facebook page. In an exchange with another girl who brought up an event they'd both attended, Flannery replied, "Hahaha best night of my life :) ya we kick it with the true irish not the gross slutter poser ones :)." A third girl asked if she counted as cute and Irish, and a fourth one chimed in "like meeee :)." Flannery answered, "Yes I love you … I think you no who im talking about :)." A couple of girls replied with a chorus of "hahas."
There is one corroborated eyewitness account of Flannery and Phoebe directly interacting. A friend of Phoebe's said that one day after the tension started over Austin, she asked Flannery not to go into a school bathroom because Phoebe was in there. Flannery went in anyway. (Other students said they saw this too.) The friend followed. Flannery was standing by the sink. Phoebe walked out of the stall without making eye contact. Flannery didn't say anything to her. The girls left the bathroom separately, Phoebe's friend said. (Other girls who implicated Flannery to the police give secondhand descriptions of alleged incidents that they didn't see. A couple of these girls had themselves called Phoebe names on Facebook and Twitter, according to the police interviews.) "It doesn't appear that Flannery said anything to Phoebe in the bathroom," Flannery's lawyer, Alfred Chamberland, told me. "Everything Flannery was alleged to have said was never directly to Phoebe."
On Jan. 7, a gym teacher overheard Flannery venting about Phoebe during class in a way that made him think a fight was looming. The teacher told Bill Evans, the assistant principal, who, according to his interview with the police, talked to both Phoebe and Flannery, giving Flannery a verbal warning and counseling both girls to stay away from each other. After that, according to the school, Flannery steered clear of Phoebe. Nothing in the police records suggests otherwise. And yet Flannery is facing the same serious charges for bullying as the other kids.
Austin, for his part, isn't accused of bullying Phoebe—but the statutory rape charge he and Sean face carries a maximum three-year prison sentence. In Massachusetts the age of consent is 16. The state rarely charges 17- and 18-year-olds like Austin and Sean for having sex with a 15-year-old like Phoebe. But this time, Scheibel did just that. Why is Austin facing a statutory rape charge if he denies having had sex with her? I tried to ask Scheibel this question, but she didn't call me back.One of her deputies, Elizabeth Dunphy-Farris, said, "I'm not going to comment on any specific evidence. It's a pending investigation."
After Christmas break, Phoebe's problems at school worsened. On Jan. 6, Sharon Chanon Velazquez, now 17, who was in Flannery's chemistry class and saw Flannery as a friend, called Phoebe a "whore" in the cafeteria and "told her to stay away from 'people's men,' " according to student witnesses who spoke to the police. A few minutes later, before the bell rang for class, Sharon walked into a classroom where Phoebe was sitting and loudly berated her again. The teacher, who was sitting across the room, told the police she couldn't hear exactly what Sharon said, but saw that Phoebe was upset. She comforted Phoebe and reported Sharon, who received a two-day suspension. After Sharon was indicted, her mother, Angeles Chanon, told the Boston Herald of her daughter's interaction with Phoebe: "She exchanged a couple of words with her. "My daughter never fought with her or said, 'Go harm yourself,' or 'I hate you.' "
Sharon's behavior and the school's reaction shows that while publicly calling out a girl as a slut wasn't condoned at South Hadley High, it wasn't entirely beyond the pale either. A few of the kids the police interviewed reported similar incidents of kids "flipping out" on one another. One 18-year-old said she heard Kayla privately call Phoebe a "whore who wanted attention." "I didn't take what Kayla said that seriously because girls in my school get in 'bitch fights' all the time," she told the police.
Though Flannery and Sharon stayed away from Phoebe after the first week of January, the conflict with Kayla, Sean, and a friend of Sean's, 17-year-old Ashley Longe, flared up again. Around Jan. 11 or 12, according to several students, Kayla wrote something on Facebook to the effect of:Know what I hate? Irish sluts. At this point, Phoebe was spending a lot of time with a third senior boy. He showed her Kayla's post, and he told the police that Phoebe responded to it, using his Facebook account, because she didn't have one. The post read something like you shouldn't say that; you don't know her.
Phoebe also showed this boy her cuts. "She lifted up her hoodie and showed cuts on her chest above her bra and all the way down to her hips," he told the police. "I really didn't look too long. I found it to be very painful. This was someone I cared about and she was harming herself. Phoebe asked for help healing them. I told her to use Neosporin but I wasn't too sure." Phoebe had chosen a confidant who didn't really know how to help her.
On Jan. 14, Phoebe came to school with a mark on her upper chest, visible above her shirt. She went to see the nurse and told her that she'd been smoking pot a few days earlier, and had dropped a hot pipe on her chest. The nurse didn't think Phoebe's story matched the mark, and she called Sally Watson-Menkel, a licensed social worker and the school adjustment counselor (she worked in the special education department but was available to other students with problems). Watson-Menkel had been in regular contact with Phoebe and her mother since the middle of November, she told the police, and she didn't believe Phoebe's story either. They talked about how to cover the mark for the school cotillion, which was two days away. Watson-Menkel told Phoebe they had to call her mother. "Phoebe said she was doing well and had made up her work and if I called her mom, she might not be able to go to Ireland"—an upcoming trip that was planned. When she and Watson-Menkel called O'Brien, Phoebe told her mother the story about the pipe and the pot and asked if they could talk more about it when she got home. (Watson-Menkel declined to comment for this article.)
But Phoebe didn't speak to her mother again. When school got out at 2 p.m., she was subjected to a series of taunts from Sean, Kayla, and Ashley. This is the worst behavior described in the police interviews. It came entirely from three kids, not six—on this point, the D.A., students, and administrators agree.
Phoebe went to the library during lunch. She sat with a girl she was friends with and a senior boy who was helping her with math. At another table were Sean, Kayla, and Ashley. One of them wrote "Irish bitch is a Cunt" next to Phoebe's name in the library sign-up sheet. According to several students Ashley yelled "whore" at Phoebe and "close your legs" and "I hate stupid sluts."
At the end of the school day, Phoebe encountered Sean, Kayla, and Ashley again outside the auditorium on her way to the parking lot. According to student witnesses, Sean said, "Here she comes," and then Ashley called Phoebe a whore. Sean and Kayla laughed. A few minutes later, as Phoebe walked home, Ashley drove by her in a friend's car, yelled "whore" out the window, and threw an empty drink can at her. Phoebe cried as she kept walking.
About two hours before she died, Phoebe texted with the boy she'd sat with that day in the library. In one of several messages that speak to her feelings of desperation, she wrote: "I cant do it anymore … im literally hme cryn, my scar on my chest is potentially permanent, my bodies fukd up wht mre du they want frm me? Du I hav to fukn od!" The boy wrote back, reassuring her that he would talk to Sean and Ashley and make them stop. "Who cares what other people think phoebe I know you're a good person," he wrote.
At home in her bedroom, Phoebe plugged in her cell phone to recharge it, perhaps because she hadn't entirely absorbed what she was about to do. Soon after, she hung herself in the stairwell with a black scarf woven with multicolor thread. Her sister had given it to her. After Phoebe's death, the police found several of her drawings. One of them shows a human figure with a noose around the neck. In a note drawn as if it was pinned to the body, Phoebe asked for forgiveness.
Click here to launch a slide show about Phoebe Prince.
Coming up in Part 2: The Phoebe Prince case isn't the first in which District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel may have stretched the law. A close look at her record as D.A.
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.