The criminal charges filed against six students Monday in connection with the bullying of the 15-year-old high school student Phoebe Prince, who killed herself in January, took the town of South Hadley, Mass., by surprise. * The six teenagers were charged with felonies and saw their names and photos on the evening news. That’s a price for bullying that kids almost never pay. These charges will reverberate in this small town for a long time to come. For many people who live here, the charges challenge a fundamental conception of South Hadley as a nice, ordinary, middle-class small town. As such, some residents were willing to work with school administrators to prevent further bullying in the future but were also ready to move on without assigning blame for Phoebe’s death. To others, who have criticized the high school’s handling of the case, the tough prosecutorial stance toward these bullies is unexpected vindication. They think the town isn’t ready to just move on. Now it won’t.
I’ve been reporting in South Hadley in the months since Phoebe’s death, because I’m interested in how communities recover from such an event and in how schools tackle the problem of bullying that precipitated it. After Phoebe died, there was an outpouring of grief for her. But from a smaller segment of the community, there was also a groundswell of rage. At public meetings, parents like Luke Gelinas stood up and berated school administrators for not responding to previous episodes of bullying involving their own kids.
In the initial uproar over Phoebe’s death, there was also pressure on the high school and the school district from the press: in the Boston Globe, where columnist Kevin Cullen expressed outrage over South Hadley’s “mean girls”; in People magazine, which ran an article sympathetic to the Prince family; and on Facebook, where a group called “expel the three girls who caused Phoebe Prince to commit suicide” has 25,841 fans. For a moment, at least, South Hadley was portrayed as the bullying capital of America. To some people in town, that’s a monstrous, unrecognizable image. In February, I talked to high school principal Dan Smith before an evening meeting about forming a task force to fight bullying (a meeting that had been planned before Phoebe’s death and then postponed for a few weeks in its wake). Some angry parents were calling for his resignation, and that of Superintendent Sayer, the main target of their anger. Smith’s inbox was overflowing with e-mails from around the world. There was talk of protestors showing up before that night’s meeting. “I’ve almost seen this like an earthquake, and we’ve been dealing with the aftershocks,” Smith said.
In the midst of those aftershocks, Smith had been trying to figure out where the school had gone wrong. While he and other administrators knew about many day-to-day conflicts, “we’d been looking at bullying, and we were missing types of aggressions, relationship aggression, which we know happens. It can be nasty.”
In Phoebe’s case, we now know from Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, who outlined the criminal charges on Monday, “relationship aggression” means that a group of girls turned on Phoebe after she “briefly dated” a 17-year-old named Sean Mulveyhill. Sean is a star on the high school football team, and was the boyfriend of Kayla Narey, 17, one of the girls who was charged yesterday. * Phoebe also became involved (even more briefly, I’ve been told) with another boy, 18-year-old Austin Renaud, whose 16-year-old girlfriend, Flannery Mullins, was also charged by the DA. Scheibel says that the nine students she charged participated in “a nearly-three-month campaign” of verbal assaults and physical threats against Phoebe. Phoebe’s picture was scribbled out of a student-body photo hanging on a classroom wall. The bullies slammed her on Facebook and sent her mean text messages. The attacks culminated on the day of her death in a “torturous day” during which Phoebe was harassed in the library, in the hallways, and walking down the street on her way home. On the afternoon of her death, a few of them reportedly drove by her while she walked home, shouted “Irish slut” and “Irish whore,” and threw a soda at her.
Scheibel says that the conduct of the nine students she charged “far exceeded the limits of normal teenage relationship-related quarrels.” That interpretation of the student behavior is shared by some, though not all, in the town. Teachers at the school are aghast at how it’s being treated in the media. “I wouldn’t teach here if the climate truly was as it’s being portrayed,” one told me.When I talked with a group of South Hadley students earlier this month, the prevailing sentiment was that, yes, Phoebe had been mistreated but not in some unprecedented way. “A lot of it was normal girl drama,” one girl told me. “If you want to label it bullying, then I’ve bullied girls and girls have bullied me. Her history made it affect her more. It wasn’t the school being terrible. It was really bad, it was one of the worst things I’ve heard of some girls doing to another girl. But it wouldn’t have hurt most people that much.”
This is not, obviously, how Scheibel came to see it. The DA isn’t slapping wrists. These kids are facing felony charges that carry hefty penalties. Sean and Austin were each charged with statutory rape, presumably for having sex with Phoebe. She was 15, and they were 17 and 18, respectively, and under Massachusetts’ broad statutory rape law, that’s apparently all it takes, because a teenager under the age of 16 cannot legally consent.
Five of the teens—Sean, Kayla, Flannery, and two other girls, Ashley Longe and Sharon Chanon Velazquez—were also charged with “violation of civil rights, with bodily injury resulting.”* That’s another broad statute, with a maximum 10-year sentence. “You have to show force or threat of force in violation of a secured right—here, the right to an education,” explains Richard Cole, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general who consults on school safety and civil rights. While the text of the statute doesn’t explicitly limit its reach, Cole said that prosecutors traditionally use it in cases that involve a threat based on a protected status—race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation—or for a First Amendment violation. Here, the tie-in could be the “Irish” part of the epithets shouted at Phoebe. Cole told me about one previous case of school-based harassment in which the charge of violation of civil rights was brought: In 2000, 17-year-old Joseph DeGrazia was prosecuted for beating up Jason Hair, 18, in the school cafeteria after harassing him for months about being gay.
The charges against the South Hadley teenagers raise another question: What about the adults? Scheibel said Monday that the harassment in the library “appears to have been conducted in the presence of a faculty member and several students but went unreported to school administrators until after Phoebe’s death.” And, more damningly, “The investigation has revealed that certain faculty, staff and administrators of the high school also were alerted to the harassment of Phoebe Prince before her death.” Phoebe’s mother, Anne Prince, spoke to staff members, the DA said.
To a degree, this matches what Dan Smith told me in February: “There were instances of name-calling, with Phoebe, the week before she died. These were brought to our attention, we dealt with those kids right away. We also talked to her, we had her working with a school counselor, we talked to her mom.”
But the timeline doesn’t entirely line up: The DA said the bullying campaign went on for three months; school officials said they only learned of it in the last week before Phoebe’s death. Nor do the results of the district attorney’s investigation jibe with the consequences of school’s internal probe. Because of privacy laws, it’s not clear which students were disciplined or how seriously. A few left the school, according to Superintendent Sayer. At least one has reportedly transferred to another high school. A couple of others were being homeschooled. But several of the teens whom Scheibel charged had been attending classes at South Hadley this week, I’m told by parents who didn’t want to give their names because of anger in the town about talking to the press. How to explain the discrepancy between the criminal charges that came raining down and the back-to-normal feeling at the high school, where the anti-bullying taskforce was dutifully meeting, but with dwindling numbers, and without the guidance of an outside expert, to the frustration of the school’s critics?
Recall that taskforce meeting in February. Protesters were expected to call for the superintendent and the principals’ resignations. Instead, the school district’s supporters came en masse. They handed out “I Support Dan Smith” stickers and gave the principal a standing ovation. Some people sat stony-faced, but the majority clapped. When Smith rose to speak, he choked up. “What’s been happening has to stop in our community,” he said. “I look around and see a lot of soldiers tonight, which is good. We need you.” He described how the anti-bullying taskforce would organize itself going forward, and asked for volunteers. He concluded, “I’m really hopeful for our kids—for their good, which so many of you are here about, and that it’s time to move on.”
The criminal charges mean that South Hadley won’t be moving on. Like it or not, the town will be taking a long, deep look back as its critics have wanted since Phoebe’s death. The charges alone, however, won’t solve the problem of bullying going forward: Every expert I’ve talked to says that fighting bullying is never as simple as merely identifying the out-of-control kids. And it’s hard to see how only a bunch of teenagers can take the fall for what Scheibel has identified as a broader school failure. She said on Monday that she doesn’t think the staff, teachers, or administrators committed a crime. She also said, “nevertheless, the actions, or inactions, of some adults at the school are troublesome.”
That’s a call for asking a lot more questions about which adults knew what, and when, in South Hadley. Elizabeth Scheibel is herself a product of South Hadley—according to her online bio, “she worked at a local restaurant, sold sweaters in a local clothing store, graduated from South Hadley High School”—and she clearly is in the camp that thinks the town can move forward only when it has held those who bullied Phoebe Prince accountable for their actions. Another bit from her bio that resonates: “A lawyer friend who has known her since kindergarten remembered how she beat up a bully who was picking on her younger brother, commenting, ‘Even in her youth she wasn’t afraid to hold her position and pursue justice as she saw it.’ ”
Corrections, June 17, 2010: Because of confusion over delinquency charges filed in juvenile court, this article originally stated that nine teenagers—rather than six—had been charged. (Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also originally misidentified Sean’s girlfriend as Ashley Longe. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) Sharon Chanon Velazquez’s name was misspelled, and Kayla’s and Ashley’s names were reversed. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)