Bullied to Death? A 15-Year-Old Massachusetts Girl Hangs Herself After Relentless Bullying at School

I think that we Americans do outrage particularly well. The problem I see is with our recurring lack of follow-up to such horrific incidents. In this case, I would have great difficulty understanding a lack of outrage on the part of anyone reading the article quoted above or the many other stories about Phoebe Prince’s tragic death.

Occasionally I am so outraged by a news story that I feel compelled to write about it; this is one of those times. The first time I wrote about workplace bullying for FedSmith.com, I had just read about the suicide of a 13-year-old girl who had been subjected to “cyberbullying” by a Missouri woman.

I had also run across a USA Today article dated November 19, 2008, entitled “Bullying devastates lives,” which chronicled the sad stories of three women who experienced constant bullying in school – one for having red hair, one for being shy, and one for being “different.” The three women talked about how their lives had continued to be affected by the bullying many years after they finished school.

A companion article noted that a high school girl’s epileptic seizures had made her a target in three different schools.  She was so traumatized by the tormenting that she dropped out of school and is now pursuing independent study; the young woman “suffers so much that she could not be interviewed” for the article.

In the current case, numerous major news outlets have reported on the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince. I will start by quoting from a March 31 New York Daily News article by Helen Kennedy.

Nine Massachusetts teens were indicted Monday for driving a pretty 15-year-old “new girl” from Ireland to suicide in a case that has become a symbol of high school bullying.

The sweeping charges – which come after months of complaints that the bullies weren’t being punished – include statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, criminal harassment and stalking.

Phoebe Prince, a new arrival at South Hadley High School from a tiny seaside hamlet in County Clare was mercilessly tormented by a cadre of classmates later dubbed the “Mean Girls” by Massachusetts newspapers.

“The investigation revealed relentless activity directed toward Phoebe designed to humiliate her and to make it impossible for her to remain at school,” District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said.

“The bullying, for her, became intolerable.”

Students said Phoebe was called “Irish slut” and “whore” on Twitter, Craigslist, Facebook and Formspring.

Her books were routinely knocked out of her hands, items were flung at her, her face was scribbled out of photographs on the school walls, and threatening text messages were sent to her cell phone.

Scheibel said she had drawn the ire of the “Mean Girls” by briefly dating a popular senior football player in her first freshman weeks at the school.  One student later said it felt like the whole school ganged up on her.

On Jan. 14, Phoebe was harassed and threatened in the school library and in a hallway, Scheibel said.  As she walked home, one of the “Mean Girls” drove by and threw a can of Red Bull at her.

Phoebe walked into her house and hung herself in a stairwell.

The nastiness didn’t even end there.  Her tormentors posted vicious comments on the dead girl’s Facebook memorial page.

For months, community anger simmered that no punishment had befallen Phoebe’s bullies.  Petitions were signed and town hall meetings held.

Scheibel said her investigators were taking the time to investigate thoroughly, and she slammed “the inexplicable lack of cooperation from Internet service providers, in particular Facebook and Craigslist.”

Seven of the nine teens indicted were girls charged with a range of crimes, from criminal harassment to stalking to civil rights violations. A juvenile girl was charged with assault by means of a dangerous weapon – the Red Bull can.

The two males, 17 and 18, were charged with statutory rape.

Unveiling the indictments, Scheibel said numerous faculty members, staff members and administrators at South Hadley High School were aware of the bullying – some even witnessed physical abuse – and did nothing.

She said the investigation looked at whether the adults’ failure to help Phoebe amounted to criminal behavior.

“In our opinion, it did not,” she said. “Nevertheless, the actions – or inactions – of some adults at the school are troublesome.”

I think that we Americans do outrage particularly well. The problem I see is with our recurring lack of follow-up to such horrific incidents.  In this case, I would have great difficulty understanding a lack of outrage on the part of anyone reading the article quoted above or the many other stories about Phoebe Prince’s tragic death.

As best I can interpret all of the news articles, Phoebe’s “offenses” included being new to the school, from another country (Ireland, the source of her soft brogue), pretty, smart, and charming; worst of all, she briefly dated a popular senior who was on the football team. Clearly, she was asking for trouble.

Any hope that the perpetrators would be mortified by the fact that their behavior had caused Phoebe to kill herself was dashed by the posting of taunting comments on her Facebook memorial page.

I’m hoping that all nine of the bullies who made Phoebe’s life so miserable and have been indicted get punished to the full extent of the law; my fondest wish —not likely to be granted—is jail time for all. I suspect that even the “Mean Girls” would emerge from detention with a whole new perspective on what it means to be bullied.

It is theoretically possible that the perpetrators have socially redeeming qualities and can be rehabilitated to the extent of becoming productive citizens at some point in the future, but based on what I have read, I consider all nine of the perpetrators to be youthful thugs who are highly likely to become predatory adults. I am guessing this won’t be their only encounter with law enforcement.

Almost as disturbing as the incessant bullying was the inaction on the part of South Hadley High School faculty members, staff and administrators. District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel found that many of them were aware of the bullying—authorities said that Phoebe’s mother brought her concerns to at least two of them – and that some even witnessed physical abuse, and did nothing. Ms. Scheibel noted that the school’s code of conduct was inconsistently enforced.  Though the faculty, staff and administrators’ behavior was not deemed criminal, she observed that “the actions, or inactions, of some adults at the school are troublesome.”

No argument there, except that Ms. Scheibel could have, without fear of contradiction, used significantly harsher language in my opinion. On the day that she killed herself, Phoebe had been harassed as she studied in the library at South Hadley High School, apparently in the presence of a faculty member and several students, none of whom reported it until after the death, according to Ms. Scheibel.

I realize that we as a society demand a great deal of teachers, often requiring them to function not just as educators but also as social workers and in a variety of other capacities, but I think student safety is a responsibility they can’t ignore.

Faculty and staff behavior in a recent school shooting here in the Denver area stands in stark contrast to the inaction on the part of South Hadley school officials. In the Deer Creek Middle School incident, a 32-year-old man shot two students as classes were letting let out on February 23.

The carnage would undoubtedly have been far worse but for the actions of David Benke, a math teacher and track coach who tackled the suspected gunman as he was preparing to fire again. Dr. Benke was aided by several faculty/staff members. Despite being widely praised for his heroic actions, he faulted himself for not reacting quickly enough to stop the two students from being shot.

In the Denver case, the faculty and staff who took action placed themselves in great personal danger. Their counterparts at South Hadley High School did not appear to be at risk of physical harm had they acted to stop the bullying. While this is pure speculation, I can’t imagine that Dr. Benke and his colleagues would have allowed such bullying to occur in their presence. As noted earlier, South Hadley High School officials won’t be charged criminally, but I believe they are guilty of gross negligence in the bullying and subsequent death of Phoebe Prince.

Ms. Scheibel found that most of the harassment of Phoebe took place in school and in person, but there was also a significant cyberbullying component, as indicated by the students who said Phoebe was called “Irish slut” and “whore” on Twitter, Craigslist, Facebook and Formspring.

South Hadley School Superintendent Gus A. Sayer told the Boston Globe that “The real problem now is the texting stuff and the cyberbullying. Some kids can be very mean towards one another using that medium.” In addressing the cyberbullying, Ms. Scheibel referred to “the inexplicable lack of cooperation from Internet service providers, in particular Facebook and Craigslist.” Apparently the privacy of the customers of those two companies trumped the interest of law enforcement officials in learning who was posting the defamatory statements about Phoebe.

Even though the unrelenting bullying of Phoebe ended tragically with her suicide, there have been heroes in this case, too. For example, District Attorney Scheibel and her staff conducted a thorough investigation, after which she indicted nine students at the school, with the possibility of more indictments to come.

I would also give great credit to the (at least) four students and two faculty members who Ms. Scheibel found had intervened during the harassment.

It was also encouraging to learn that hundreds attended a candlelight vigil organized by students on the South Hadley High School softball field the day after Phoebe died.

Parents are also pushing to create an anti-bullying task force at the high school, although the scheduled first meeting was postponed for a month.

What, you might ask, does this incident, however tragic, have to do with workplace bullying?

According to a January 26 ABC News article by Susan Donaldson-James about Phoebe’s suicide, “Bullying has become increasingly common in schools throughout the United States.”  The National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center estimated that nearly 30 percent of American youth are either a bully or a target of bullying.

Where are most school bullies and their victims headed? For the workplace is my best guess, including the Federal workplace. And bullying, in addition to having a debilitating effect on many of its victims and often causing performance and attendance problems, can also lead to workplace violence. So I believe that helping to prevent bullying in school is not only the right thing to do but is also in the best interest of Federal agencies and their employees.

In part two of this article, I’ll explore some successful current initiatives and strategies for preventing or reducing the prevalence of bullying.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.