Flannery Mullins Speaks Out
Andy Bowers: Over the past year, Slate's Emily Bazelon has been reporting on what led to the 2010 suicide of a 15‑year‑old western Massachusetts girl named Phoebe Prince. The early reporting on the case said her death was the direct result of severe bullying by six fellow high‑school students, a group that quickly became known among locals and the media as the South Hadley Six. The district attorney at the time, Elizabeth Scheibel, charged the six students with serious felonies, five facing a charge that held responsible for Phoebe's death. The kids became infamous across the nation as supposed symbols of lethal cyber bullying. But Emily Bazelon's reporting painted a more nuanced picture. Among other things, Emily learned that Phoebe Prince had a history of depression and a previous suicide attempt that pre‑dated the accusations of bullying. In May 2011, the new district attorney for South Hadley, David Sullivan, changed course. He agreed to let the four girls charged with bullying admit to facts supporting one minor misdemeanor charge.
Once the girls complete probation, they'll emerge with clean records. A fifth teenager, a boy, pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor offense and also got probation. Statutory rape charges against the sixth teen, Austin Renaud, were dropped entirely, and that was the end of the official case.
But it's not over for those involved, either for Phoebe Prince's family or for the kids accused ‑ they believe unfairly ‑ of causing Phoebe's death. After the court case wrapped up, Emily Bazelon sat down for the first public interview with one member of the so‑called South Hadley Six, a girl who has not spoken out until now about her experience in the legal and media glare. She is Flannery Mullins, now 18, and as she tells the story, her main role in this drama was clashing with Phoebe over Austin Renaud, who had been Flannery's boyfriend for the previous year and a half.
Flannery Mullins: Like at some points I'm like, "Yeah, I want to get the story out there," but then I'm like, "Is anyone really going to listen?" And I honestly could care less if they hate me or love me, but I do want the real story to be told, because I think that the intelligent people, or the people who actually, you know, think about things before they read them or look into things should know that there's way more to this story.
Andy Bowers: In what follows, you'll hear Emily Bazelon and Slate Producer Jesse Baker talking about the case and playing key clips from Emily's interview with Flannery Mullins.
Jesse Baker: So Emily, your reporting over the past year has profoundly been different than the general media's concept of this story. What is the public sense of what's transpired in that small, New England town?
Emily Bazelon: I think the main impression about South Hadley and the suicide of Phoebe Prince was that she was bullied to death by a pack of "mean girls". My reporting gave me access to a lot of court documents that nobody else had, and what was clear in those documents was that while yes, it is true on the day that Phoebe died, there were three kids who were mean to her to school. There were also other factors that went into her suicide. She had a history of depression and of cutting herself and a previous suicide attempt from the fall, before she died in January. The other thing that was really clear to me was that while the kids have been lumped together as the South Hadley Six, they had very different roles in the events leading up to Phoebe's death. They weren't a group of friends, to begin with. They were kind of two trios of kids, and one of the trios of kids ‑ which involved Flannery Mullins and her boyfriend Austin Renaud, and a girl named Sharon Velazquez ‑ they had no contact with Phoebe, at least the girls certainly didn't, in the 10 days or so before she died. That's a really different picture, I think, than the one that we got initially from the media, and also from the prosecutor.
Reporter 1: Now to the tragic case of Phoebe Prince. Prosecutors in Massachusetts say the 15‑year‑old was relentlessly bullied before...
Reporter 2: ...involved, allegedly, the so‑called "mean girls" ‑ our girls who reportedly saw Phoebe...
Reporter 3: Every cruel hand that touched 15‑year‑old Phoebe Prince in some way contributed to her tragic death.
Reporter 4: Prosecutors say these teens tormented Phoebe Prince for weeks, now they're facing charges ranging from...
Reporter 5: A 15‑year‑old girl committed suicide and it appears that she was being bullied online.
Jesse: What was it that's drawn you into this story? I mean, when did you start to get the sense that the conventional portrayal of events in South Hadley was flawed? At least, based on your own reporting.
Emily: I was interested in South Hadley because I was working on a series for Slate about bullying. I thought, just like everyone else, that this sounded like a totally out‑of‑control, horrible group of kids kind of running wild in this school. I went up to the school with this question of, "What kind of environment breeds that sort of cruelty, and how does a school let things get so out of control? And who are these kids?" And so when I started talking to students at the school ‑ and I looked for students who weren't close friends with Phoebe, and also weren't friends with the kids who'd been accused of bullying, who were just sort of... And in different parts of the school ‑ athletes, kids in the music and drama programs.
And what I heard from them was that their understanding of all of this was very different from what had been reported in the press. That Phoebe was involved with conflicts with other girls because she had been interested in boys who those others girls felt were their boyfriends. The boys also were involved in the conflicts, it wasn't just girls. And when I started saying, "Well, you must be so relieved that these six kids are gone, because they must have been so scary and evil to have around," I just got blank looks.
The kids said no, that they weren't bullies, they weren't kids who other kids were afraid of and no, we're not glad that they're gone. It's not like the school feels like a better place now that they're not here, they weren't those kids in the social hierarchy, and that really surprised me.
Jesse: So what were they actually charged with?
Emily: Five of the kids were charged with serious felony charges, including this charge called "civil rights violation with bodily injury," where the bodily injury was Phoebe's death. They were being directly, criminally blamed for her suicide and that charge carried a 10‑year maximum prison sentence. There were also charges of stalking and of harassment and of something called "disturbing a school assembly" which just means like, disturbing any group of students in a school. And then the two boys were both charged with statutory rape. The allegations were that they had had consensual sex with Phoebe but because they were 18 and 17 and she 15, that was illegal.
Jesse: OK, so let's flash forward to May of 2011, the day that their cases were actually resolved.
Emily: One student, Sean Mulveyhill, pled guilty to a misdemeanor offense of harassment and got probation. The other boy in the case, Austin Renaud ‑ who had never been charged with harming or harassing Phoebe in any way but had been charged with statutory rape ‑ that charge against him was dropped. The four girls admitted facts that involved minor misdemeanor offenses and in exchange for that admission, they got probation and an agreement from the court that if they finished their probation, they would have the charges against them dropped as well.
Jesse: So these were some pretty serious charges, and they were just given probation. I mean, that seems pretty minor.
Emily: Yes, it is, and I think it's pretty hard to understand the discrepancy between these very serious felony charges, with long prison sentences, and this kind of outcome, unless you imagine that this suggests that the district attorney, to begin with, overcharged these kids.
Jesse: But the kids have also been punished in other ways.
Emily: Yes, I think they have been under an intense media glare for a whole year. I mean their names were out there, their faces... And for the kids who were charged as juveniles ‑ and this is Flannery and a girl named Ashley Longe, and then another girl named Sharon Velazquez ‑ this was really unusual. Prosecutors don't usually publicize teenagers' names like this. We have this idea that teenagers aren't held accountable in quite the same way as adults. And so this prosecutor made a decision to argue that the felony she charges she brought involved serious risk of bodily harm to Phoebe, and that that justified the publication of these names. That's something the defense, I think, would have contested if these cases had gone further than they did toward a trial. But in any case, the kids' names and faces have become synonymous with evil, "mean girl" teenage bullying, and that has been this very intense experience for them ‑ simply that level of attention and the effect on their reputations.
I spoke to Flannery Mullins' mother, Jennifer, about this last week.
Jennifer Mullins: Mid‑January to, and all of February, it was just brutal for Flannery. She would be in the house, trapped, basically, because there would be reporters outside, banging on the door. So she said, "Mom, I have to go to work, I don't know what to do. I can't get out, they won't leave," and this happened over and over and over.
Jesse: OK, so I understand how most of the world saw Flannery's interactions with Phoebe, but how did Flannery actually see her own conflict with Phoebe?
Emily: Flannery was in a relationship with Austin that she saw as serious. They'd been together for a year and a half, and she thought that Phoebe was trying to take Austin away from her in a way that was deliberate. I think it's also important to understand that at this point, Phoebe was really popular. There were other boys who were interested in her, she was a beautiful girl ‑ by all reports, charming and likeable ‑ and so Flannery didn't see her as weak or as easily victimized, at all. She saw Phoebe as a rival. And so here she is. I asked her about this last week, and here she is talking about how she thought that the trouble started.
Flannery: Yeah. What happened was I came to school one day and like, pretty much a bunch of girls, Phoebe's friends, came up to me and were like, "Austin and Phoebe are hooking up." And at this point, I was like, I guess I kind of like took it in shock because I had... I mean I had no idea and this was the first time I ever heard of it. And she came up to me again and she's like, "Yeah, I told Phoebe that you were still talking to Austin and she said she didn't care and she would do what she wants," and like, that kind of thing. I mean I don't really know if Phoebe said this, but this is what her friends were saying. And I had, like, a panic attack in school, kind of, and I went to guidance and I went home. Because I was like crying and a mess.
Jesse: So... This sounds like a typical high‑school girl drama, right?
Jesse: So, so what happens next?
Emily: What happened next was that Flannery went to gym class, and she was talking to a couple of friends about how she was angry with Phoebe. Phoebe wasn't in the gym class, and Flannery wasn't confronting her. But a gym teacher heard her saying something like, "Someone should go kick her ass" about Phoebe. And the gym teacher told the administration at the school that that had happened, and then one of the administrators pulled both girls in to talk to them. He didn't punish either girl, Flannery wasn't suspended, she wasn't really in trouble but he made it clear to her that he was keeping his eye on both of them.
And Flannery told him that she wasn't going to actually do anything to Phoebe and that she would cut it out.
Flannery: And it was literally two girls fighting, like, equal conflict. It wasn't bullying to me, because I don't think that someone was meaner to someone else.
Flannery: I think that it was equal parties.
Jesse: OK. But isn't it in Flannery's own interests to say this was an equal normal exchange?
Emily: Yes, it is. And if you think about this story with our usual, older understanding of it, it sounds surprising. But from my reporting Flannery is telling us what happened in an accurate way. And there were lots of rumors that made it seem like Flannery was coming after Phoebe in the bathroom one day at school for example, that was repeated a lot. But in fact they were just rumors; they weren't really based on anything. What happened that day in the bathroom was that, Phoebe went to the bathroom and then Flannery went into the bathroom. And other girls were kind of making it seem like there was some drama involved but in fact each kid just walked out of the bathroom and went her own way.
There was a lot of amped up rumors that are based on things that actually as they happened were quite small or even didn't really happen at all.
And remember we're talking about Flannery's part in this whole story. There were other kids who did come up to Phoebe at school and say insulting things to her that other kids could hear, and who were confrontational. It just that Flannery was actually not one of those kids, and hasn't in fact ever been accused of doing that.
And this is one of the ways in which the whole label of the "South Hadley Six" I think really played out to the kid's detriment. They were all held responsible for things that some of them had done individually, and nobody really bothered to differentiate that among them and figure out who was exactly responsible for what.
But in the end if you were that person who's affected by that characterization of course that matters tremendously.
Jesse: Right. One of the questions that I have about this case is, it seems so cliché that the girl gets mad at the other girl when her boyfriend strays. It's always the other girl you get upset with, instead of your boyfriend. Did you ask Flannery about this?
Emily: Yes. I did ask Flannery about that, because it's something I've wondered about too. Did she talk to Austin about these rumors and what did he say?
Flannery: Well, I was upset with Austin too.
Flannery: I hear that all the time, "Why weren't you mad at Austin?" You don't know what I was saying to Austin. Of course I was upset with Austin, I was heartbroken.
Jesse: So just to be clear, Flannery never actually had words with Phoebe, right?
Emily: I think that's right.
Jesse: So what did she actually do?
Emily: In court she admitted to expressing anger toward Phoebe in gym class and that was the basis for a misdemeanor offense of disturbing a school assembly, meaning just a group of kids. And then the other thing she admitted to were things that actually Sharon Velazquez did. Sharon came up to Phoebe a couple of times in school and called her a slut or a whore, loudly enough for other kids to hear. Interestingly Sharon told the police from the beginning and has continued to say that Flannery didn't ask her to do any of that or direct her any way, that she did it on her own. And that's also what Flannery says.
But in court those facts about Sharon turned into the basis of Flannery's misdemeanor charge of a civil rights violation. And essentially the idea was that somehow Flannery and Sharon were in what's called, a joint enterprise, when Sharon was doing those things even though they both said Flannery really had nothing to do with it.
Jesse: But this isn't the version of the story the district Attorney Betsy Sheibel told. In her press conference announcing the criminal charges she talked a lot about a relentless three‑month campaign of bullying. And that largely became a story.
Emily: That did become the story, and in court as I listened to all of these cases resolve themselves with such minor punishments, it became clear that there was no evidence to support a three‑month campaign of bullying. Which again, is not to minimize what actually happened on the day of Phoebe's death, which was serious? And it's clear from the text messages Phoebe wrote before she died, that it upset her. In particular Sean Mulveyhill's role, because he hadn't stood up for her and she was really, I think, in love with him or certainly cared a lot about his opinion. And so that was pretty devastating for her.
But the idea of a campaign of bullying suggests that these six kids were coordinating their efforts over a long period of time, and there's just no evidence that any of that happened. Here's Jennifer Mullins, Flannery's mom talking about that.
Jennifer: It was ridiculous, it was just cold, hard lies.
Jennifer: And she wrapped the whole country around this concept of bullying.
Flannery: But then the media ate it up. I mean, everyone ate it up.
Jennifer: Right. Exactly.
Flannery: Because it was a pretty story in a pretty town with white picket fences and this poor little girl got... I mean, it was literally a movie setting. They put it in a perfect mean girl setting.
Jesse: If Flannery could go back, is there anything that she said she would do differently?
Emily: I think she would have talked to Phoebe about the conflict that they were having.
Flannery: I guess I probably would have said something to her, in regards to like, "Can you tell me really what happened because I'm really hearing a lot of rumors and I would like to know what really did happen." If I could redo anything I think I would just approach her and have all these rumors stop, and just be like, "Hey, what happened?"
Jesse: So, Emily, what kind of impact did Phoebe's suicide then has on Flannery.
Emily: I think it was hugely confusing for her. Partly because she had been angry and partly because Flannery didn't really know Phoebe at all. She didn't know about her history of depression, she didn't know that Phoebe had previously tried to commit suicide in November a couple of months before she did. So I think it was a real shock, and it's very difficult when you're angry with someone to have a suicide happen in that way.
Flannery: I think it was really confusing for me. I didn't know really what to think because I was of course sad and upset. Mostly I was confused, and couldn't figure out how this had happened, because I didn't know this part of her. I didn't know her, I didn't know her history, I didn't know anything until this whole case started and all this other stuff we had to research because of what she had gone through. But I think it's really sad, when you look back and see what she went through, it's really sad. But I don't think it's fair to blame other people for her history.
Jesse: Flannery, along with the five other kids was blamed for Phoebe's suicide, but when you spoke to Flannery, was she ashamed?
Emily: No, she wasn't. I think she's had to really trust herself and her own memories of what happened and separate out the reality of what she feels like she actually did from all the rumors and accusations that have been swirling.
Flannery: I'm not ashamed of myself at all, and I know that that's what they want me to be, is to be is ashamed of myself and I'm not. And I have no problem saying who I am. And my mom suggested, "Well, you could change your name." And I, "No. I don't care." And maybe it will come back to bite me in the end but as of right now I have no problem in defending myself. I have no issue with it.
Jesse: So what has all this press attention done to Flannery's life?
Emily: Well, it's really changed the last year for her enormously. For one thing one of her neighbors started harassing her in a constant way. Coming outside of her house and yelling and writing things in the dust on her car. And then also tracking Flannery's movements on the Internet so that other people would know what she was doing. There have also been isolated incidents at parties where Flannery has felt like other kids were judging her in some way. And at one night, she and a friend came out of party and they had ridden over together in her friend's car, and someone had smashed the front window in the car.
The person didn't leave a note and it could have been something else, but it was hard for Flannery to see another possible explanation. And I should also say all of the kids have just been subject to incredibly cruel, mean, bullying attacks by people who don't know the facts of the case but just for whom these kids became symbols of something that they could disapprove of.
And one of the other girls involved, Sharon, had a brick thrown through her window at one point that had a bullet attached to it somehow. So I think this was a pretty serious set of consequences for these kids. And it has nothing to do with any criminal punishment they actually faced but it all came out of simply being indicted.
For Flannery, this has really affected her everyday life. She changed schools; she had to start all over again in a new place. And everyday the reputation that she carries with her, deserved or not, is there for her to contend with.
Flannery: It was extremely hard. It hits a lot when I'll apply for jobs and I know I'm not going to get the job. Or in class when my professors are talking about the case in completely not realistic ways and I feel like I have so much to say but if I say it I'm going to be looked at as a horrible person.
Emily: And so that's happened, the case has actually come up in class?
Flannery: Oh yeah, in class. It comes up a lot, and they don't know who I am. And that's what's, kind of almost funny to me because I'm a fly on the wall to my life.
Jesse: Is this the last that we're going to hear about the South Hadley Six?
Emily: Formerly speaking, pretty much. This case is over. But I think for these kids it's going to be hard to ever entirely leave this experience behind them. Usually in juvenile justice we're very conscious in thinking about how teenagers are supposed to be held less accountable or differently accountable than the way we hold adults accountable. The Supreme Court has said that we don't execute juveniles, that they can't actually have the punishment of life without parole.
But in this case there's no way to protect these kids from the long‑term consequences of having all of this publicity. And that seems to me like a really serious consequence and yet not one that the criminal justice system is necessarily has to take into account.
Andy Bowers: That was Emily Bazelon in conversation with producer Jesse Baker. You'll find all of Emily's award winning reporting on the Phoebe Prince case at slate.com. For Slate I'm Andy Bowers.
Transcription by CastingWords