Phoebe Prince's suicide raises questions about Massachusetts schools' role in preventing harassment. Forty-one other states, including Washington, have anti-bullying laws of varying strength.
Phoebe Prince’s family had moved recently to Massachusetts from a small town in Ireland. She entered high school last fall.
Prosecutors and classmates say the taunting started when the 15-year-old freshman had a brief relationship with a popular senior boy. Some students reportedly called her an “Irish slut,” knocked books out of her hands and sent her threatening text messages, day after day.
Prince hanged herself from a stairwell at her home in January, leading to charges Monday against six teenagers, including two boys charged with statutory rape and a clique of girls charged with stalking, criminal harassment and violating Prince’s civil rights.
The charges are an unusually sharp legal response to the problem of adolescent bullying, which increasingly is conducted in cyberspace as well as in the schoolyard and has raised questions about educators’ role in prevention.
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South Hadley High School officials won’t be charged, even though the district attorney determined the girl’s harassment had been “common knowledge,” contradicting administrators’ previous assertions that they had been unaware of problems.
The school officials were the target of intense criticism, and Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel’s assertions Monday infuriated some parents anew, a sign that pressure could mount on the School Board to take action against administrators.
“They knew all along and did nothing to prevent it,” resident Donna Tower said. “There needs to be justice for Phoebe Prince.”
Prince’s family has moved away and could not immediately be located for comment.
Christine Swelko, assistant superintendent for the South Hadley Public Schools, said school officials planned to meet with Scheibel this week or next.
“We will then review this evidence, and particularly the new information, which the district attorney’s office has, but did not come to light within the investigation conducted by the school,” Swelko said in a statement. “Once we are able to obtain this information we will be able to make a more comprehensive statement and possibly take further action against the students still attending South Hadley High School.”
Scheibel said the events leading up to Prince’s death Jan. 14 were “the culmination of a nearly three-month campaign of verbally assaultive behavior and threats of physical harm.”
Scheibel said the case is still under investigation and that one other person could be charged. She wouldn’t discuss the circumstances of the rape charges, but experts said those charges could mean the boys had sex with an underage girl.
No school officials are being charged because they had “a lack of understanding of harassment associated with teen-dating relationships,” and the school’s code of conduct was interpreted and enforced in an “inconsistent” way, Scheibel said.
“Nevertheless, the actions — or inactions — of some adults at the school are troublesome,” she said.
The charges are “an aggressive approach,” said Robert Griffin, a former Suffolk County prosecutor. “They are casting a wide net.”
In the uproar around the suicides of Prince and an 11-year-old boy subjected to harassment in nearby Springfield last year, the Massachusetts Legislature stepped up work on an anti-bullying law that is near passage.
The law would require school staff members to report suspected incidents, and principals to investigate them. Schools also would be required to teach about the dangers of bullying.
Forty-one other states, including Washington, have anti-bullying laws of varying strength, and Seattle Public Schools has a zero-tolerance policy on bullying.
Still, such incidents may be on the rise across Washington state. A recent study by the national Cyberbullying Research Center of an unnamed school district in the state reported 9 percent of a representative sample of middle-schoolers said they had been a victim of cyberbullying in the past month; 8 percent said they had been a cyberbully.
In a high-profile case in January, McClure Middle School in Queen Anne suspended 28 students for up to eight days over a Facebook page that taunted a student.
Silence at school
At South Hadley High School, which has about 700 students, most students and teachers have refused to talk about the Prince case.
Ashlee Dunn, a 16-year-old sophomore, said she did not know Prince personally but had heard stories.
“She was new and she was from a different country, and she didn’t really know the school very well,” Dunn said. “I think that’s probably one reason why they chose Phoebe.”
Scheibel, the prosecutor, described in painful detail Prince’s last day at school, saying the investigation found the girl was taunted in the hallways and bombarded with vulgar insults. As she studied in the library during lunch, some students reportedly hounded her openly while other students and a teacher watched.
A canned drink was thrown at her as she walked home.
“It appears that Phoebe’s death on Jan. 14 followed a tortuous day for her, in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse,” Scheibel said.
Prince’s sister found her hanging from the stairwell, still in her school clothes.
South Hadley parent Mitch Brouillard, who said his daughter Rebecca had been bullied by one of the girls accused in Prince’s death, was pleased that charges were brought. One of the students was charged separately in a case involving his daughter.
“We have to make an example out of these kids,” Brouillard said. “They have to be held accountable. This could have been my daughter.”
The school has convened a task force, which met Monday night, to help determine how to deal with bullying. “That’s the really clear message we’re trying to send — if you see anything at all, online, through friends, you have to tell us,” said Bill Evans, a school administrator leading a subcommittee group.
The task force also must consider whether state law affects existing procedures. “The big question out there is what the Legislature will impose on school districts,” Evans said.
Laws too vague
Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge, Mass., lawyer who has argued that proposed cyberbullying laws are too vague and a threat to free speech, said he thought the charges would pass legal muster.
The sorts of acts of harassment and stalking claimed in the charges were wrong under state law, Silverglate said, but one question would be whether they were serious enough to constitute criminal violations, as opposed to civil ones.
Compiled from The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Boston Globe and Seattle Times archives