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Teen’s suicide after repeated bullying sparks debate

South Hadley, Mass., school leaders come under fire for their response to the ongoing abuse

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.

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Comments:

  1. jing13

    April 7, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    Several thoughts come to mind regarding bullying:
    1) If students somehow had been taught the lesson of ‘karma’ that what you do to others will be done unto you, this thought internalized in their conscience would deter them from engaging in such cruel acts. It’s time we teach the applicability of the law of action and reaction in physics to apply to other human activities.
    2) Something is amiss that students spend an enormous amount of energy and time in planning and executing unkind and destructive acts instead of focusing on constructive activities. Could it be that school holds no real interest for them and that they find no purpose in going to school except in battering a classmate of their choice?
    3) Where is a regular meeting of the youth with adult guidance known as
    youth fellowship where teen concerns can be discussed in a calm and thoughtful manner?
    4) Is it not time to inspire teens to find purpose in their lives and teach them to be responsible members of society? Engaging in productive labor where money can be earned, learning how differences can be discussed amicably – these are useful skills that can serve them well in their adult years.

  2. jing13

    April 7, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    Several thoughts come to mind regarding bullying:
    1) If students somehow had been taught the lesson of ‘karma’ that what you do to others will be done unto you, this thought internalized in their conscience would deter them from engaging in such cruel acts. It’s time we teach the applicability of the law of action and reaction in physics to apply to other human activities.
    2) Something is amiss that students spend an enormous amount of energy and time in planning and executing unkind and destructive acts instead of focusing on constructive activities. Could it be that school holds no real interest for them and that they find no purpose in going to school except in battering a classmate of their choice?
    3) Where is a regular meeting of the youth with adult guidance known as
    youth fellowship where teen concerns can be discussed in a calm and thoughtful manner?
    4) Is it not time to inspire teens to find purpose in their lives and teach them to be responsible members of society? Engaging in productive labor where money can be earned, learning how differences can be discussed amicably – these are useful skills that can serve them well in their adult years.

  3. karminio

    April 7, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    I get more upset each time I read another article about this poor child. I agree that some administrative heads should roll including the Superintendent, Principal, and any other adult found to be aware of the bullying, yet ineffective in stopping it. As my sympathy clearly is with Phoebe’s family, I also feel for a lost generation of children who have no respect for life. How did it come to this? You can’t blame this one on race, poverty, drugs or the breakdown of the nuclear family. I think there are some parents who should be doing some serious soul searching.

  4. karminio

    April 7, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    I get more upset each time I read another article about this poor child. I agree that some administrative heads should roll including the Superintendent, Principal, and any other adult found to be aware of the bullying, yet ineffective in stopping it. As my sympathy clearly is with Phoebe’s family, I also feel for a lost generation of children who have no respect for life. How did it come to this? You can’t blame this one on race, poverty, drugs or the breakdown of the nuclear family. I think there are some parents who should be doing some serious soul searching.

  5. marjieg@webwisekids.org

    April 7, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    First, our entire staff wants to express our most sincere condolences for Phoebe’s family and friends. We can help prevent cyberbullying! Web Wise Kids is a national nonprofit organization that educates and empowers youth and parents to make wise choices online and when using their cell phone devices. One of our programs addresses cyberbullying. All of our programs are implemented in classrooms and after school programs throughout the country by educators, law enforcement, and librarians who have been trained by our staff. Over 7.5 million youth have experienced our programs. Please visit our web site at http://www.webwisekids.org or call us at 714-435-2885.

  6. marjieg@webwisekids.org

    April 7, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    First, our entire staff wants to express our most sincere condolences for Phoebe’s family and friends. We can help prevent cyberbullying! Web Wise Kids is a national nonprofit organization that educates and empowers youth and parents to make wise choices online and when using their cell phone devices. One of our programs addresses cyberbullying. All of our programs are implemented in classrooms and after school programs throughout the country by educators, law enforcement, and librarians who have been trained by our staff. Over 7.5 million youth have experienced our programs. Please visit our web site at http://www.webwisekids.org or call us at 714-435-2885.

  7. wgeigle

    April 7, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    Education has become a content standard driven business. I have yet to find a math, reading or science content standard that says it is important that students learn to be human. Children are being left behind–we no longer find it important or have time to teach children to be kind, compassionate human beings. A sad state of affairs.

  8. wgeigle

    April 7, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    Education has become a content standard driven business. I have yet to find a math, reading or science content standard that says it is important that students learn to be human. Children are being left behind–we no longer find it important or have time to teach children to be kind, compassionate human beings. A sad state of affairs.

  9. chavez9875

    April 7, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    About 1-2 weeks ago a third grader in Houston, Texas jumped off a second story balcony of the school he attended because of bullying. This is an unacceptable event. Fortunately the boy survived with only a few bumps and bruises. The student stated he was just tired of the bullying. A similar situation in this Houston school as the Massachusetts high school. It is disturbing to me as an educator of elementary children that a fellow educator can turn a deaf ear and be blind to bullying in a classroom. Those teachers and administrators should be relieved of their duties permanently!! They have failed the communities that they service and no child is safe while they are at the helm. Children should feel safe and be safe when they are at school. No individual should have to endure bullying of any sort. We have battered women’s shelters, homeless and abused children’s shelters, … what about bullied students??? Who takes care of them??? Who’s responsible for their well being while at school???

  10. chavez9875

    April 7, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    About 1-2 weeks ago a third grader in Houston, Texas jumped off a second story balcony of the school he attended because of bullying. This is an unacceptable event. Fortunately the boy survived with only a few bumps and bruises. The student stated he was just tired of the bullying. A similar situation in this Houston school as the Massachusetts high school. It is disturbing to me as an educator of elementary children that a fellow educator can turn a deaf ear and be blind to bullying in a classroom. Those teachers and administrators should be relieved of their duties permanently!! They have failed the communities that they service and no child is safe while they are at the helm. Children should feel safe and be safe when they are at school. No individual should have to endure bullying of any sort. We have battered women’s shelters, homeless and abused children’s shelters, … what about bullied students??? Who takes care of them??? Who’s responsible for their well being while at school???

  11. murray2448

    April 8, 2010 at 8:31 am

    This is an important article for many reasons, and should be required for any professional charged with crisis planning and communications, community relations, or senior level administration and management. While it is essential that work continue to prevent such tragedies, it is equally important – for the sake of our communities and families – that we are prepared for all off the circumstances that we may encounter. This article is a thoughtful analysis that should help all public affairs, public relations, and communications professionals.

    Bill Murray
    President and Chief Operating Officer, Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)

  12. murray2448

    April 8, 2010 at 8:31 am

    This is an important article for many reasons, and should be required for any professional charged with crisis planning and communications, community relations, or senior level administration and management. While it is essential that work continue to prevent such tragedies, it is equally important – for the sake of our communities and families – that we are prepared for all off the circumstances that we may encounter. This article is a thoughtful analysis that should help all public affairs, public relations, and communications professionals.

    Bill Murray
    President and Chief Operating Officer, Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)

  13. ccarson735

    April 8, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Parents, where are your children learning their social graces? If you are not teaching them how to have compassion for those less fortunate, they will not have compassion. Schools can only do so much. Research shows that children respond to their parent’s beliefs more than any other influence. Children who use bullying tactics need to be taught better. Children given access to internet through computers, smart phones or any other device need to be monitored. Children are not little adults. They must be closely watched and corrected if they are to become good people.

  14. ccarson735

    April 8, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Parents, where are your children learning their social graces? If you are not teaching them how to have compassion for those less fortunate, they will not have compassion. Schools can only do so much. Research shows that children respond to their parent’s beliefs more than any other influence. Children who use bullying tactics need to be taught better. Children given access to internet through computers, smart phones or any other device need to be monitored. Children are not little adults. They must be closely watched and corrected if they are to become good people.

  15. jstone

    April 12, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    I believe that there is a shared responsibility here. Having been a victim of bullying in the not so distance past, I have come to the understanding that not everyone agrees on what bullying is or is not. In my experience, I reported my situation to the HR dept of the company I was working for at the time. It was dismissed. It continued for months. Even with witnesses to the bullying, I was not believed until a Administrative person witnessed the situation and yes, I worked for a school district. There seems to be a mind-set out there in the world that words don’t but I can tell you that they do hurt. I can heal from a visible wound much faster than from the emotional wound words impart.
    Until school districts truly look at the climate within their schools, students and staff will continued to be bullied. Until people at large stand up and say ENOUGH is enough, we will not tolerate this type of behavior bullying will continue and until parents assume responsibility for the conduct of their children, nothing will change. It is time to take off the blinders and see how ugly this world has become due to tolerance of bad behavior.

  16. jstone

    April 12, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    I believe that there is a shared responsibility here. Having been a victim of bullying in the not so distance past, I have come to the understanding that not everyone agrees on what bullying is or is not. In my experience, I reported my situation to the HR dept of the company I was working for at the time. It was dismissed. It continued for months. Even with witnesses to the bullying, I was not believed until a Administrative person witnessed the situation and yes, I worked for a school district. There seems to be a mind-set out there in the world that words don’t but I can tell you that they do hurt. I can heal from a visible wound much faster than from the emotional wound words impart.
    Until school districts truly look at the climate within their schools, students and staff will continued to be bullied. Until people at large stand up and say ENOUGH is enough, we will not tolerate this type of behavior bullying will continue and until parents assume responsibility for the conduct of their children, nothing will change. It is time to take off the blinders and see how ugly this world has become due to tolerance of bad behavior.

  17. porkithepig

    April 13, 2010 at 9:17 am

    ahhahahahahahah and what about us in other countries ?
    I stay in grecee the most cannibalized country of the world at athens the cappital cupposed to be more safe but noo thirty to fifty roberries per day !!!and we own 440 billions to E.E. what to tell ?
    Our house have been robberd three times and the tell us to be cool ?
    WTF ?
    I thinking on suiside and i think that it is better to be a body wheras to be a idiot when i grow up.
    All taxes up 49% is this life ?

  18. porkithepig

    April 13, 2010 at 9:17 am

    ahhahahahahahah and what about us in other countries ?
    I stay in grecee the most cannibalized country of the world at athens the cappital cupposed to be more safe but noo thirty to fifty roberries per day !!!and we own 440 billions to E.E. what to tell ?
    Our house have been robberd three times and the tell us to be cool ?
    WTF ?
    I thinking on suiside and i think that it is better to be a body wheras to be a idiot when i grow up.
    All taxes up 49% is this life ?

  19. bicenogle689

    May 5, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Personally, I’m tired of administrators and teachers considering bullying as a “right of passage” or “something we all go through”.

    There are a few kinds of students, and people, in education, and out.

    The first are the bullied in school. Those that get picked on. Often, they don’t know why they are picked on, just that they are. Of course, some are “different.” So that makes it OK? No wonder many learn to hate school. Society makes them go to torture for 13 years … if they don’t drop out, or become retaliatory.

    Then there are those the hide from bullying. ‘Maybe if I ignore it, I’ll NOT be a victim.” I suspect most of us fell in this category. What do they think of school? A safe and wonderful place to be?

    Some, simply don’t see bullying. They just aren’t aware of things around them.

    Next, we have the “go alongers.” Those that travel with the bullies. Some, so they won’t be bullied. Some, so they can enjoy watching another being denigrated. Some, so they can be “part of the IN group.” They probably don’t have too bad a time at school, as long as they “go along.”

    And, of course, we have the bullies, the organizers, the “leaders”, the “top dogs”, etc. What these warped people get out of this, is for someone, more knowledgeable than I, to figure out. I suspect these people like school. If I ruled, I’d think it was GREAT! No one to cross me, no one to question me, I’m the leader, etc. After school they might not find the outside world so palatable.

    I wonder, sometimes, where some of the administrators and teachers fell? Many administrators and teachers go to great lengths to try and be sure all students receive the respect and protection they deserve. (Yes, I said protection. If for no other reason than they are a human being.) Unfortunately, far too many administrators and (fellow) teachers use their positions to continue their past ways, or to condone it in others.

    This type of administrator and teacher should be run out of education.

    I’ve read that almost, if not, every incident of mass student violence was instigated by students that were bullied. Yes, many were “different.” No, all “different” students don’t lash out; some “tough it out”, some kill themselves to end the pain.

    As soon as a mass incident happens, we all see the news reports of these students being “different.” Often the implication is that being different caused them to act out. In reality, it was the only path left to them by those in charge of protecting and educating them.

    I fear that many of us (teachers) don’t want to rock the boat, or risk being unpopular with a colleague or the students. I we remain quiet. We let it happen. When we let something like this happen, I hope we have a hard time looking in the mirror.

  20. bicenogle689

    May 5, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Personally, I’m tired of administrators and teachers considering bullying as a “right of passage” or “something we all go through”.

    There are a few kinds of students, and people, in education, and out.

    The first are the bullied in school. Those that get picked on. Often, they don’t know why they are picked on, just that they are. Of course, some are “different.” So that makes it OK? No wonder many learn to hate school. Society makes them go to torture for 13 years … if they don’t drop out, or become retaliatory.

    Then there are those the hide from bullying. ‘Maybe if I ignore it, I’ll NOT be a victim.” I suspect most of us fell in this category. What do they think of school? A safe and wonderful place to be?

    Some, simply don’t see bullying. They just aren’t aware of things around them.

    Next, we have the “go alongers.” Those that travel with the bullies. Some, so they won’t be bullied. Some, so they can enjoy watching another being denigrated. Some, so they can be “part of the IN group.” They probably don’t have too bad a time at school, as long as they “go along.”

    And, of course, we have the bullies, the organizers, the “leaders”, the “top dogs”, etc. What these warped people get out of this, is for someone, more knowledgeable than I, to figure out. I suspect these people like school. If I ruled, I’d think it was GREAT! No one to cross me, no one to question me, I’m the leader, etc. After school they might not find the outside world so palatable.

    I wonder, sometimes, where some of the administrators and teachers fell? Many administrators and teachers go to great lengths to try and be sure all students receive the respect and protection they deserve. (Yes, I said protection. If for no other reason than they are a human being.) Unfortunately, far too many administrators and (fellow) teachers use their positions to continue their past ways, or to condone it in others.

    This type of administrator and teacher should be run out of education.

    I’ve read that almost, if not, every incident of mass student violence was instigated by students that were bullied. Yes, many were “different.” No, all “different” students don’t lash out; some “tough it out”, some kill themselves to end the pain.

    As soon as a mass incident happens, we all see the news reports of these students being “different.” Often the implication is that being different caused them to act out. In reality, it was the only path left to them by those in charge of protecting and educating them.

    I fear that many of us (teachers) don’t want to rock the boat, or risk being unpopular with a colleague or the students. I we remain quiet. We let it happen. When we let something like this happen, I hope we have a hard time looking in the mirror.