A Secret Settlement

Why won’t the town of South Hadley say how much money it paid Phoebe Prince’s family?

Phoebe Nora Mary Prince, 15, committed suicide

Since the death of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old whose suicide in South Hadley, Mass., prompted an international outcry after it was linked to bullying, there has been a constant attempt to assess blame. There has been blame for the teenagers accused of bullying Phoebe—they faced criminal charges in connection with her death. There has also been blame for the South Hadley schools. Both the teens and the school were called out again this week when Anne O’Brien, Phoebe’s mother, gave her first TV interview, to Piers Morgan of CNN.

Morgan called the kids accused of bullying Phoebe “wicked” and “depraved” after he and O’Brien noted that the kids had posted “done” and “she got what she deserved” on Facebook after the suicide. That accusation has been repeated many times in the almost two years since Phoebe died. But in nearly two years of reporting on this case, I’ve never seen any firsthand evidence that the kids who were charged posted such things, nor have I spoken to anyone who has. There’s nothing like this in the court records. I called Morgan’s show to ask what support they had for these sensational Facebook quotes. A PR rep for the show responded to me but offered no evidence for the quotations. On the air, Morgan also said that five kids were “convicted” in connection with Phoebe’s death. That’s not true: No one was. One teen pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor. Four others admitted to some wrongdoing and will come out with clean records once they’ve completed probation. Charges were dropped against the sixth teenager. About the error, Morgan’s PR rep said they would not issue a correction.

In another dramatic statement of blame, O’Brien said, “As a mother, I think had the school intervened the way they should have intervened, the way they should have followed up, that Phoebe would still be here, absolutely she would still be here.”

South Hadley High tried to defend itself after the suicide, saying that Phoebe didn’t tell anyone at school about problems she was having with other kids, including the worst cruelty at school, which happened on the day she killed herself. But when the Prince family brought a complaint with the Massachusetts Committee Against Discrimination over the school’s failure to stop the harassment, the town settled, on behalf of the school district, while agreeing not to disclose how much was paid out. The terms of the settlement have yet to become public.

Massachusetts has a public records law, and it covers settlements like this one. But South Hadley’s lawyer says that nondisclosure is allowed in this case because the settlement was paid by the town’s insurer, which means that no public funds were used. He also justifies his refusal to disclose on the basis of the confidentiality clause in the agreement. 

This is wrong. Though the settlement may not have come from public funds, I know from emails the town gave me last week that its insurance premium for certain policies has doubled, at least in part as a result of the settlement. The town also has a deductible of $2,500 on the relevant policies—small potatoes, perhaps, but that $2,500 comes out of taxpayer funds.

And consider the principles at stake. Every local and state government has insurance coverage, paid for, of course, with taxpayer dollars. If settlement agreements covered by insurance companies aren’t subject to open records laws, then all the government has to do to avoid privacy laws is to take out liability insurance. And if a confidentiality clause is enough to bar disclosure, that’s even more troubling. It simply eviscerates the public records law. That just can’t be right.

I’ve tried to persuade the town to release the settlement agreement, but South Hadley has refused. I’m going to court to get it, with the help of the ACLU in Western Massachusetts and the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic at Yale Law School (where I am a fellow). If and when I learn the terms of the settlement I’ll report on it here. The Prince family continues to make allegations of grave wrongdoing on the part of the school. The public has a right to know how South Hadley responded.