The XX Factor

Blaming the Victim

Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel responded to my piece about the death of Phoebe Prince . Here’s her quote:

Ms. Bazelon’s article suggests that Phoebe’s internal struggles alone caused her death and it is unfair to hold these defendants accountable for their behavior. As a matter of law, the existence of a victim’s disability does not legally excuse a defendant’s criminal actions. Under many statutory schemes it serves to aggravate the offense, rather than mitigate it.

I didn’t say that Phoebe’s internal struggles alone caused her death. I do think the six kids charged should be held accountable for their behavior-but through school discipline, not through the criminal justice system. And in fact, they’ve been held accountable and then some.

Scheibel is right that a victim’s disability doesn’t technically excuse a defendant’s actions. That’s the lawyerly response. But the issue here is prosecutorial discretion. It was Scheibel’s decision to bring a 10-year maximum felony charge that blames the kids for Phoebe’s death. This is an extremely unusual response to suicide and to bullying. The law professors I talked to said they couldn’t think of another case like this one. Scheibel’s decision to bring these charges was heavy-handed prosecutorial indiscretion.

A Boston Herald article and some Slate commenters have accused me of “revictimizing the victim.” They point to one particular line in the story: “Phoebe helped set in motion the conflicts with other students that ended in them turning on her” as evidence that I am blaming her for the events that led to her death.

I of course did not write this story to turn the blame back on Phoebe, nor excuse the bullies, especially for their behavior on her last day. But in this case, there are six other kids whose futures are on the line, and the prosecutor is directly blaming five of them for Phoebe’s death. With stakes this high, it is necessary to put Phoebe’s behavior in context and explain the many complicated factors that led up to her suicide. It is still a tragic and unhappy story, but not the same, simple, tragic story the media has wanted to portray.

Like almost all of us, Phoebe wasn’t entirely passive and she also wasn’t merely a victim. She was a person who had social power some days and none others, and who seems to have suffered from a terrible mental illness that left her especially vulnerable. It’s complicated, and if we want to really understand what happened to her, and to really unpack bullying more generally, we need to make room for a more complex set of dynamics.

In the Herald , Darby O’Brien disputes one fact in my story: that Phoebe’s parents were separated. I imagine that’s complicated, too. For my statement, I relied on multiple accounts from people close to Phoebe in the records, as well as my own interviews. I respect Darby, and on many aspects of this case, I think he and I agree. When we talked in June and again this morning, he said: “It’s really hard to believe the six kids got these charges-I think they’re carrying way too much blame. In the end, it will be clear, everyone failed that kid.”

For me, what’s especially heartbreaking about this story is this, from my piece:

According to the police interviews with a school counselor and nurse, Phoebe had gone off antidepressants before her death, and it’s not clear whether she was still in therapy. She was asking for help from older boys who seemed ill-equipped to provide it and who don’t seem to have told any adults what was wrong-not just Sean and Austin, but other boys, too. She resisted talking to her mother or an adult at school about her clashes with other kids, which psychiatrists I spoke to said is typical.

I’m sure that if Phoebe’s parents had understood her despair on the day she died, they would have done their absolute utmost to help her. Teen suicide is so scary, and unfortunately, in this case, no one had caught on to how bad things had become.

More in response to Scheibel here , from UNC law professor Joseph Kennedy.

To read Emily Bazelon’s full series on Phoebe Prince, click here .

Undated family photo of Phoebe Nora Mary Prince, 15.