The Blame Game

Should the school officials involved in the Phoebe Prince bullying case lose their jobs?

Read the rest of Emily Bazelon’s  series on cyberbullying. See Emily Bazelon’s special report on the untold story of Phoebe Prince and her suicide.

Gus Sayer, South Hadley superintendent of schools

In the midst of the national uproar over the criminal charges filed against nine teenagers accused of bullying 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide in January, a small local event is unfolding much more quietly today: An election for school committee, as the school board is called in South Hadley, Mass., where Phoebe went to school. Even as criticism bombards the school district from outside, the school committee chairman who has publically questioned the district attorney’s characterization of the facts is running unopposed. Edward Boisselle will keep his seat, it seems, no matter what the district attorney or the editorial writers or TV interviewers say. (One other school committee member is also running unopposed, but he hasn’t defended administrators.) The election captures how different a problem like bullying can look from close up than it does from far away.

When District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel charged the nine teens in late March, she said that Phoebe had endured a three-month campaign of bullying that was “common knowledge” among the students at the high school. She also said that “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.” Boisselle and Superintendent Gus Sayer have responded with what looks from the outside like a completely tone-deaf series of scoffs and denials. “Did they go interview all 700 kids at the school and found out that more than 300 knew about it? Isn’t that the only way you could tell that they factually knew about it?” Boisselle asked in the Boston Herald. In print interviews and on CNN, Sayer has stuck to the oddly unapologetic line that the high school did all it could for Phoebe. Administrators and teachers just didn’t really know or understand what was going on. “The kids have a way of communicating with each other without us knowing about it,” he said. “They really have their own world.”

This is meant as a defense, rather than an admission of lameness, even though after a suicide you’d think that the school would do some soul searching about why administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors didn’t fully comprehend what was happening to a vulnerable student. This professed ignorance is also factually at odds with the account of Phoebe’s mother, who has said she asked the school in November whether kids were threatening her daughter and then went back to talk to school officials about Phoebe in the first week of January. Sayer’s claim also doesn’t line up with the accounts of students who I’ve talked to. They say they saw Phoebe standing outside a classroom in tears and heard her crying in the nurse’s office the day she died, as some students also told the New York Times.

Luke Gelinas, a parent who has called for the resignation of Sayer and Principal Dan Smith, told me he met with Sayer last Friday morning. “I told him I’d heard from Darby O’Brien, the spokesman for the Prince family, that during the intake process in September, when Phoebe was brought to the school, it was made known to them that she was prone to bullying and that she should have regular counseling and checkups to make sure she’s OK. Sayer confirmed that for me. But no counselors reached out to her until three months later.” This hasn’t been reported elsewhere, so I called Sayer’s office to check on it. I haven’t heard back.

None of the evidence makes South Hadley High School directly responsible for Phoebe’s death. We don’t know much about other precipitating factors in her life (and because of privacy laws, the school can’t talk about that part of the story). But it would be a lot more reassuring—and a lot smarter, public-relationswise—if Sayer were using his TV time to explain how the school is doing its utmost to figure out why no one there put together all the pieces about Phoebe. If the school had been warned she was vulnerable; if certain teachers saw flashes of her distress; if the nurse (and a guidance counselor, according to Principal Dan Smith) saw others, why didn’t anyone connect the dots? By not naming any adult at the school, Scheibel in a sense implicated all of them. That’s causing a lot of frustration and grief among teachers and other adults at the school. At the same time, no one I’ve talked to thinks it’s right for nine kids to be criminally charged while all the adults involved walk away.

Yet, under Anderson Cooper’s stern eye, Sayer made excuses. “She didn’t reveal to people what she was being subjected to and, unfortunately, until January 7, we were not aware of what she was being subjected to, so [there was] very little way we could have intervened in the bullying.” Really? Bullying in general had become a known issue at the high school—students came to the administration about it and started a group to address it, nicknamed the E-Crew, last fall. And the school brought in consultant Barbara Coloroso to talk to teachers and parents in September. These are good moves for a school to make. But it’s odd for school officials to argue both that they were trying to get on top of bullying—as they have earlier—and that there’s nothing they could have possibly done to help Phoebe because she wasn’t direct enough about what was happening to her.

After Phoebe’s death, a stream of parents showed up at a school committee meeting to describe the bullying their children had experienced in the local schools and their dissatisfaction with how officials had handled it. A father named David Leonard (who died in March) said his daughter left South Hadley High last year because she was being hounded. Another father, named Mitch Brouillard, said his daughter was mocked and excluded by some of the same girls who bullied Phoebe. Gelinas says his son was pushed around and taunted for months after he quit the football team last fall.

For outsiders, it’s easy to wonder how, in the face of the mounting criticism and national media attention, Boisselle and Sayer can keep their jobs. Locally, today’s election explains why they don’t see it that way so far. If the criminal charges had been filed earlier, someone might have challenged Boisselle; as it was, prospective candidates shied away from the intense publicity. Inside South Hadley, people want to deal with bullying—they’re unhappy seeing their town as a symbol of cruelty. (Some of them told me they’ve taken to saying they’re from “Western Mass” rather than “South Hadley” to avoid questions and frowns.) But the town is split over blaming the high school and the leadership of the school district. On the Web, it seems that all the players in this story have their supporters and defenders. On Facebook, there’s a page in support of Principal Dan Smith, and pages both supporting and denouncing Sean Mulveyhill, the football star facing charges for bullying. There’s also a new Phoebe Prince memorial page; the first one was pulled down after commenters reportedly mocked her death.

For some people in South Hadley, the perspective from outside of the town brings a welcome dose of reality. (Some are already talking about a recall election for Boisselle.) But a lot of the students and parents I’ve talked to in South Hadley are somewhere in the middle: They want some accountability, and they don’t like the idea that a group of teenagers are the only ones on the hook for a failure that’s bigger than they are. But they’re also wary of anything that seems precipitous or extreme. They want to know more about what exactly the D.A. found—and think more about what they can expect from their school officials—before they make up their minds about a story that is still unfolding.

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