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.”

ADVERTISMENT

  • Mark

    Forty years ago, I was bullied in elementary school but it was neither organized nor nearly as intense as what Phoebe endured. Despite falling crime rates, today’s society is far more coarse and dangerous. The students who bullied Phoebe to her death, which they then celebrated, are criminal psychopaths who are probably beyond redemption. Though young, they knew exactly what they were doing and deserve stiff prison sentences. In a sort of karmic justice, the bullies and their families have now been intensely bullied. This, too, is wrong. There’s plenty of blame to go around here, from negligent parents to clueless administrators. Having a well-developed policy of identifying this behavior early on, protecting the victim, and punishing and educating bullies in civilized behavior, is the key to eradicating this scourge. It shouldn’t even be called “bullying”; it is potentially deadly, emotional torture as evil as serial killing. And, bullies, make no mistake: you may be riding high now, but in the long run, your lives will be at least as miserable as those of your victims.

  • Mark

    A lawyer for the bully-torturers has adopted a blame-the-victim strategy, suggesting that Phoebe was indeed a tramp who was previously suicidal. This behavior violates canons of professional legal ethics and should have gone out of style after Alton Maddox and Vernon Mason were disbarred for using these tactics in an infamous rape case many years ago.

  • JM

    Amazing how the young men at this school played the women. These mean girls were mad at the wrong person and now must live with this tragedy. It’s never worth killing yourself, or hurting others, over a boy, ladies. These guys are rotten players. Nice work Boston mag in getting to the heart of the matter.

  • Doreen

    So the parent should have spoken out… Well I did when my children were being bullied in a Rhode Island school and nothing was done about it. I ended spending my life savings to send my children to

  • Doreen

    So the parent should have spoken out… Well I did when my children were being bullied in a Rhode Island school and nothing was done about it. I ended spending my life savings to send my children to

  • Shawna

    Dr. Susan Spinks, now Dr. Susan Topper was relentlessly bullied at UMass Medical School by 3 doctors, including Dr. Carol Waksmonski and Dr. Peter Levine. The bullying was a mobbing event to scapegoat her for bad patient results that were due to the malpractice of the intern and supervising physicians. She had to take time off and nearly killed herself.

    This malignant medical climate is what you pay for with your money and your lives. Stop workplace bullying and mobbing at UMass Medical Center.

  • Shawna

    Dr. Susan Spinks, now Dr. Susan Topper was relentlessly bullied at UMass Medical School by 3 doctors, including Dr. Carol Waksmonski and Dr. Peter Levine. The bullying was a mobbing event to scapegoat her for bad patient results that were due to the malpractice of the intern and supervising physicians. She had to take time off and nearly killed herself.

    This malignant medical climate is what you pay for with your money and your lives. Stop workplace bullying and mobbing at UMass Medical Center.

  • Shawna

    Dr. Susan Spinks, now Dr. Susan Topper was relentlessly bullied at UMass Medical School by 3 doctors, including Dr. Carol Waksmonski and Dr. Peter Levine. The bullying was a mobbing event to scapegoat her for bad patient results that were due to the malpractice of the intern and supervising physicians. She had to take time off and nearly killed herself.

    This malignant medical climate is what you pay for with your money and your lives. Stop workplace bullying and mobbing at UMass Medical Center.

  • Lesley

    Reading this article brought back so many painful memories. I grew up in Pennsylvania and was bullied in junior high because I didn’t “fit the mold.” I agree with the comment below..negligent parents and clueless administrators are partly to blame! If I had a nickel for every teacher that chose to look the other way while I was harassed by classmates…
    I’m now living in the San Francisco Bay Area and after reading this article all I can think of is, ‘thank God my kids are surrounded by well-educated, first generation immigrants and thriving in a school culture with tolerance and diversity at its very core.”