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 |

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.

  • 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.”