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 |

“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.”

  • 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.”