Who Failed Phoebe Prince?
High school was hell for 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, but it didn’t have to be deadly.
SUPERINTENDENT GUS SAYER ISSUED the recorded message directly to all students and staff by 9:45 p.m., a feeble attempt at outrunning the South Hadley High School rumor mill. “On Thursday afternoon, we received the heartbreaking news that one of our freshman students died unexpectedly…,” he said. But the town of South Hadley just isn’t that big. Many people already knew that Phoebe Prince was dead.
And by Friday’s student-run candlelight vigil, held on the SHHS softball field, the local papers were reporting what students had known for weeks: School, for Phoebe, had become beyond miserable. “Teenager Bullied to Death,” the headlines would read, and “…Phoebe Prince, 15, Suspected of Committing Suicide Because of Bullying.”
[sidebar]During the following days, before the increasing presence of news cameras and reporters became something for residents of this Springfield suburb to dread and disavow, several students spoke candidly about bullying, almost as if it’s a fact of life. “A lot of people say stuff anonymously…so you don’t even know who’s saying it,” junior Becky Brouillard told one NBC affiliate, referring to texting and online posts. “They can talk over a keyboard but they’ll never say it to your face.” At school the next day, one of the teens who would later be accused of tormenting Phoebe slammed Becky’s head, not so anonymously, into a locker.
THEY CALL IT THE HAPPY VALLEY. The ’burbs of Springfield lie in the shadow of the Holyoke and Tom mountain ranges and host the “Five Colleges”: Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, UMass Amherst, and Mount Holyoke. South Hadley, home of the last, is a resolutely middle-class, predominantly white town of 17,000 bordering the Connecticut River, and is one of the least pretentious among its neighbors. Most people live in South Hadley either because they have roots there or work at the college. “South Hadley is a nice, friendly place to live,” says Jennifer Carleton, a real estate paralegal and mother of two who has lived in the town her entire life. “Most of us were born here and chose to have a family here. We’re invested in keeping it a good place to be.” Carleton, like many locals, learned about Phoebe’s death before it made the news — her sister-in-law once lived in the apartment the Prince family rented.
South Hadley has also been an enclave for Irish immigrants. Phoebe and her 12-year-old sister, Lauren, moved there in August from the Irish seaside village of Fanore with their mom, American-born Anne O’Brien Prince. Anne’s husband, Jeremy, a gardener, stayed behind with the older children, Bridget, Tessa, and Simon. It’s not clear what prompted the move. “Anne and Jeremy wanted to give their daughters a whole different experience, in a positive way,” says Darby O’Brien, a family friend and SHHS parent who came forward in the aftermath of Phoebe’s death to speak about the Princes. “South Hadley is a very comforting community for people from Ireland.”