Who Failed Phoebe Prince?
High school was hell for 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, but it didn’t have to be deadly.
“If Phoebe’s situation had been handled properly at the beginning, I believe she would not have killed herself,” Coloroso says. “Suicide is complicated, so we can’t know that for sure. But I can guarantee the last few months of Phoebe’s life would have been far more pleasant and she probably would not have killed herself…. There’s always intent to harm in bullying. You tell a kid, ‘You’re a slut and a whore and no one wants to be around you,’ and that’s how she starts to feel.”
For many parents, a task force was nothing more than a bunch of buck-passing — too little, too late. They wanted accountability. They demanded expulsions, and that administrators be fired — or arrested. The last thing they wanted was a task force. “This is what [administrators] do,” says Jennifer Carleton, the lifelong South Hadlian. “They form a committee, and then a subcommittee. Then they go around in circles, and then the issue dies.”
Inaction has seemed to plague South Hadley for years. Susan Smith, whose son Nick is a sophomore there, says her niece was forced to transfer to another school after being bullied at SHHS. “She was in the principal’s office, like, every day,” Smith says. “My sister had to sell her house and move.” Three months after Phoebe’s death, Smith was frustrated that there was still no bullying plan in place. “They’re not doing the job; they’re not even answering questions,” she says of administrators.
At the school committee meetings that followed the suicide, citizens were allowed to speak, but Sayer, Smith, and committee chairman Ed Boisselle would not tolerate questions. Citing privacy laws, the administrators refused to tell parents even whether the suspected bullies — whose identities, by now, were all over town and on the Internet — still attended SHHS. They did. No one had been suspended, expelled, or even given detention, and all had been allowed to attend the dance. Four of the six would later transfer to another school or drop out, which kept their academic record technically clean.
More SHHS parents began telling stories publicly about how their own kids had been bullied. The increasingly common refrain: School officials had done nothing. Slowly, additional victims came forward. A former SHHS student, using the pseudonym “RJ” and a distorted image, posted a YouTube video detailing four years of torment by a “very popular” girl. “Most of that could have been avoided if it weren’t for neglect by teachers and staff,” he says. “Neglect is a strong word, but there’s no other word for this refusal to intervene.” He blames SHHS guidance counselors for taking a work-it-out stance and teachers for ignoring blatant attacks. He says most adults sided with the girl who bullied him because she was pretty and had lots of friends, and that when he asked an adult for help, “he looked at me and shrugged. And he said, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ He had done absolutely nothing.” Others, he says, treated him as if he were simply being whiny and overreactive.
In Phoebe’s case, administrators have so far pleaded ignorance. Smith, the principal, and Watson-Menkel, the adjustment counselor, declined to comment for this story. Superintendent Sayer told me in March, “Unfortunately, we learned about [Phoebe being bullied] too late. Had we known about it earlier, we would have intervened…. There was some chatter at lunch tables among kids but not within earshot of any adults in the building or staff. No one came forward to tell the principal.” He added, “[Phoebe] was a very private person.”