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 |

Reporting bullies requires a level of trust between students and their teachers and administrators; fostering that trust and maintaining a safe environment is the responsibility of the many adults in the school, whether they directly witness violations or not. Some parents have questioned the role of Todd Dineen, the plainclothes cop whose job is described as the liaison among the police department, schools, and courts. South Hadley police Chief David LaBrie says Dineen was not made aware of any bullying activity regarding Phoebe.

Dineen maintains an office in the high school and divides his time among there, the middle school, and the elementary schools; sometimes, he’s required to appear in court. Dineen says he was friendly with Phoebe, but that she never reported problems with classmates. He believes she would have felt comfortable enough with him to do so. “Whenever I saw her, she had people around her,” he says. “Some kids you see sitting alone in the lunchroom and it just breaks your heart. She wasn’t like that.” Dineen also says kids often use language with one another that, as a father of two daughters, he finds inappropriate. “You hear one girl saying, ‘Hey, bitch,’ to another and you stop them and they say, ‘Oh, no, it’s okay — we’re friends.’”

Paul Mihalik, a retired Holyoke cop who lives next to SHHS, says that three years ago he went to the principal to voice his concerns about the behavior he saw in kids who passed by his house. They were rough with one another; they littered. And the language: Shit this, and fuck that. One kid put a used condom in his mailbox. “Principal Smith said he had very little time for me,” Mihalik says. “He said he’d get back to me, but he never did.”

For Phoebe’s friend Katie, the bullying got so bad that she says she, too, considered suicide. “Phoebe told me nothing was worth taking my life over,” she says. “We were like sisters going through the same things, but Phoebe was the strong one.” Katie says administrators knew she was being targeted — “I went to them crying” — but did nothing. She now attends a different school.

TWO AND A HALF MONTHS after Phoebe’s death, the felony indictments came down. Sean and Kayla, both 17, and Austin, 18, will be tried as adults, while 16-year-old Ashley, Flannery, and Sharon will be tried as juveniles. Sean faces charges of statutory rape, violation of civil rights, criminal harassment, and disturbance of school assembly. Kayla: violation of civil rights, criminal harassment, and disturbance of school assembly. Austin: statutory rape. Ashley: violation of civil rights. Flannery and Sharon: violation of civil rights and stalking. All have denied the charges.

“The investigation revealed relentless activity directed toward Phoebe designed to humiliate her and to make it impossible for her to remain at school,” Scheibel said in a press conference. She called the actions or inactions of some adults at South Hadley “troublesome,” but not criminal. While Principal Smith’s investigation is now complete, which means that any punishments coming from the school have been doled out, Scheibel’s is still under way.

  • 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.”