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.

  • 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.”