Teen’s suicide after repeated bullying sparks debate

By Nora Carr, APR, Fellow PRSA
April 7th, 2010

15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself in January, just two days before the school’s winter cotillion.

15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself in January, just two days before the school’s winter cotillion.

A teen’s suicide in bucolic Western Massachusetts has resulted in several of her former classmates being charged with crimes ranging from disturbing a school assembly to civil-rights violations, harassment, and statutory rape. And now the school system finds itself at the center of a heated controversy over its response to the ongoing abuse.

Tormented daily at school and online by a group of “mean” girls and boys, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself in January, just two days before the school’s winter cotillion.

“It appears that Phoebe’s death on Jan. 14 followed a tortuous day for her, in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse,’’ said Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel. “The events were not isolated, but the culmination of a nearly three-month campaign of verbally assaultive behavior and threats of physical harm.”

Sadly, the bullying didn’t stop with the pretty Irish immigrant’s death. Even after Prince committed suicide, students reportedly continued to mock Prince and make hateful comments about her on social media sites—even to the point of disrupting an online memorial set up in her honor.

Prince’s crime? Apparently, per news reports, the teen queens ruling the school’s social scene didn’t think a newcomer like Prince should date a popular football player. As a result, she was repeatedly referred to as an “Irish slut,” among other nasty names.

While school officials weren’t charged with any crimes, Scheibel said that Prince’s abuse was “common knowledge” and criticized teachers and administrators for not doing more to intervene.

“The actions or inactions of some adults at the school are troublesome,” said Scheibel, noting that the police investigation “revealed that certain faculty, staff, and administrators also were alerted to the harassment of Phoebe Prince before her death.”

The issue of who knew what, and when, has spawned outrage in South Hadley, Mass. Security at the school has been increased. Some are calling for the principal, superintendent, and school board chairman to resign.

School officials maintain they found out about the bullying shortly before Prince’s death. The district attorney seemed to refute these claims during the press conference announcing the criminal charges against the four girls and two boys involved in harassing Prince.

Statements issued by Christine Sweklo, South Hadley Public Schools assistant superintendent, indicated district officials had not been given the opportunity to review new information gleaned from the criminal investigation prior to the district attorney’s press conference.

With the superintendent away on vacation and pressure mounting, the district seemed to struggle to tell its side of the story.

Statements were issued to the news media but weren’t posted online, even though the district’s web site was touted as new and improved.

After days of silence, the superintendent, school board chairman, and principal stumbled badly during interviews, particularly on television.

Sounding dismissive, defensive, and insecure, these individuals reinforced rather than refuted the stereotypical view of aloof, out-of-touch bureaucrats.

Yet a closer read of written materials released by the school and district reveal a more caring, competent, and compassionate response.