Who Failed Phoebe Prince?
High school was hell for 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, but it didn’t have to be deadly.
On January 18, before Phoebe’s body was to be shipped to Ireland, the family held a private funeral with an open casket; Phoebe wore the black sequined dress she had bought for the cotillion. The dance went on as planned, 48 hours after her death. As Phoebe’s mother and sister prepared to move out of the Newton Street house and into Eileen and John’s home in Springfield, hundreds of kids arrived at the Log Cabin in Holyoke in limos, wearing tuxes and jewel-tone dresses. Sean, a diamond stud in each ear, was seen laughing, while one student was reportedly overheard telling friends she “played dumb to the police.”
Four days after the dance — and nearly a week after Phoebe went home and hanged herself — principal Dan Smith sent parents a detailed letter concerning the suicide. He noted that Phoebe had had many close friends and had been “smart and charming,” and also “complicated.” He explained that local and state police investigators would be looking into the role that bullying might have played. The school would lead its own thorough questioning, of course, he said. Administrators also would reexamine policies regarding the handling of bullying, including cyberbullying, both inside and outside of school.
South Hadley had a no-tolerance policy, with disciplinary consequences that included expulsion, says Sayer, the superintendent. The problem was, bullying had not been defined — it was up to the principal to determine what constituted it. Likewise, punishment was at the discretion of the principal or assistant principals. Like many schools across the United States post-Columbine, South Hadley had worked to implement student-wellness programs and school safety precautions — the top-heavy administration, the adjustment counselor, a plainclothes cop. It had been a start. It had not been enough.
In his letter, Smith announced the formation of an anti-bullying task force that would draft new regulations for addressing student misbehavior. Assistant superintendent Christine Sweklo invited Colorado-based Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander and an expert on nonviolent conflict resolution, to speak to the community. Coloroso held an all-day workshop with SHHS students, who seemed, she says, exceedingly distressed. “The biggest concern that students expressed to me was that no adults were taking this seriously and that kids had to be accountable,” says Coloroso.
Coloroso had been to South Hadley before — in September, following the death of 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover, who had hanged himself the previous April, after enduring bullying at his charter school in Springfield. “South Hadley didn’t want [what happened to Carl] to happen in their community,” says Coloroso. Parents were given only a day’s notice, however, and attendance was low. When she returned to South Hadley after Phoebe’s death, Coloroso found the high school had failed to implement any of the changes she suggested on her first visit, including establishing a clearly defined policy on bullying, disciplinary measures, and a system that made it safe for students to report aggressors.