Who Failed Phoebe Prince?

High school was hell for 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, but it didn’t have to be deadly.

By Alyssa Giacobbe | Boston Magazine |

SUSAN WILSON, WHOSE SON BEN is an SHHS freshman, in March cohosted a benefit for the Prince family at Adelfia, a South Hadley restaurant and function hall. Phoebe’s friend Cliodhna Shannon flew in from Ireland and sang Taylor Swift’s “Breathe” for a crowd of more than 200. Wilson says not a single school administrator showed up.

The $7,000 that was raised from benefit ticket sales and raffles went entirely to the Princes. O’Brien says Phoebe’s mother and sister want to remain in South Hadley, though now four of the Prince children are back in Ireland, one in a casket. In April, the Princes retained Springfield attorney Rebecca Bouchard, a high school teacher turned attorney who specializes in advocating for children who are victims of abuse. Bouchard did not respond to requests for comment. 

As for Sayer, his contract was due to expire at the end of this month, but in April the South Hadley School Committee voted unanimously to extend it. Boisselle, meanwhile, stepped down as committee chairman, though not, he says, because of anything to do with Phoebe. He remains on the board.

Not long ago, SHHS’s new task force invited Jim McCauley and Larry Berkowitz from the Riverside Trauma Center in Needham to speak to parents about recognizing suicidal tendencies in teenagers. “Ninety to 95 percent of suicides betray underlying issues,” Berkowitz told the crowd of about 80. “But at the same time, it’s entirely preventable.”

At that meeting, Smith reassured parents that the school encourages students to talk to counselors, pairs kids in a sort of buddy system, and tries to “provide the greatest support that we can.” A new anti-bullying policy will go into effect in September at SHHS, though the task force is still deciding what, exactly, the policy will entail.

Until this spring, Massachusetts was one of only nine states without a law against bullying or requiring schools to regulate it. In late April, lawmakers approved a measure requiring staff to report bullying incidents and principals to investigate them. Teachers and administrators now must undergo training that would help them recognize and respond to bullying. It’s up to the principal whether to report incidents to the police. While a step forward, the law could be strengthened with provisions like those in other states.

In Georgia, for instance, administrators must get victims out of harm’s way by transferring a bully to another school after three offenses in one school year. In Ohio, schools are required to give parents access to any written records about incidents involving their child. Such measures come at a time when American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry statistics show that half of all children are bullied at some time during their school years, and at least 10 percent endure it regularly. More than 160,000 children stay home from school daily because of bullying, according to National Education Association estimates. “How are you supposed to concentrate in math class when you’re trying to figure out how to get to English safely?” Coloroso says.
“Ultimately, parents have to be on top of what’s happening. Say, ‘You don’t want to snitch? I’ll snitch for you.’ We adults have to have some role. Kids cannot do this all on their own.”

  • 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.”