Who Failed Phoebe Prince?
High school was hell for 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, but it didn’t have to be deadly.
PHOEBE HAD NEVER BEEN quiet or shy — Katie remembers the day she wore a corset to school and “didn’t care what other people said about her” — but she was the new girl at an age when social groups are fluid and friendships fickle, when fitting in is too often the only way to survive. She was scared. She wasn’t tough, she confided to a friend, and she didn’t know how to fight. Between classes, she started ducking into bathroom stalls or walking down the middle of the hallway surrounded by a few friends as a shield. Most days, she cried as she made her way to and from her locker. Everyone saw.
“I remember taking attendance and a bunch of the kids said that Phoebe was having some trouble so she was at the counselor’s office,” says Cindy Kele, a South Hadley substitute teacher. “They said it like it was a matter of fact, like everyone knew and she was there all the time.” Kele believed it, too. She knew firsthand how these kids could be: Her own daughter, a student at the middle school, had recently been harassed by SHHS girls after being invited to a high school dance.
Phoebe’s harassment happened outside school, too, in ways that must have made her feel even more defenseless. I used to like Irish girls, Flannery reportedly posted to Facebook one day in late winter. Now I know that some of them are slutty. Similar invectives appeared on students’ MySpace pages, and on the anonymous Q&A site Formspring, and in Craigslist’s “rants and raves.” Phoebe’s cell number became public information, and the hateful words found their way to her via text: slut, bitch, cunt. She’d change her number; the bullies would get that, too.
On January 7, a teacher overheard a threat against Phoebe during gym class, and reported it to the front office. The student was “disciplined appropriately,” the school would later say. This student was Flannery, according to authorities. The next day in the cafeteria, Sharon, Flannery’s best friend, yelled at Phoebe about Flannery and repeatedly called her a “ho,” authorities would say; Phoebe reported her to an assistant principal, who sent Phoebe back to class while he handled another matter. When Sharon then followed Phoebe into Latin class and continued to harass her, Phoebe started weeping, but managed to collect herself before class began, authorities would say. The school suspended Sharon for a day.