independent

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Shock as tragic Phoebe's school plans Irish trip

Parents question trip after bullied teen's death

Phoebe Prince, who died aged 15

IT looks like an innocuous announcement in a student newspaper -- a school trip to the UK and Ireland for the students of a Massachusetts High School.

But these kids once shared classrooms with tragic schoolgirl Phoebe Prince in South Hadley High and now they're planning to begin the visit in her home county of Clare.

The trip is being seen as yet another example of lessons not learned in the 14 months since the 15-year-old tragically took her own life.

In the days after she died, the school allowed a cotillion -- similar to a debs -- to go ahead. One of the young men charged with statutory rape and civil rights violations of the Clare schoolgirl, Sean Mulveyhill, later appeared in pictures on Facebook dancing with girls.

School officials claimed at the time that their perceived lack of sensitivity was being exaggerated. Now, with six of their students before the courts, the school has decided to go ahead with the trip to Ireland.

In early April they will land in Shannon, less than an hour from Phoebe's family home. The group will also travel to London, and a tour of Oxford, where Phoebe's father Jeremy studied, is believed to be planned. The trip was in the works around the time Phoebe was enrolled in the school and many locals feel that it should be called off.

"What kind of welcome do they imagine they are going to get in Ireland?" one parent at the school asked the Sunday Independent.

"There is a federal investigation going on into the conduct of the officials at the school, the kids are before the criminal courts, and they are now using school funds to travel thousands of miles to where the parents of this girl live. Are they trying to provoke them or something?

"You have to wonder what kind of leadership is there and what has really changed."

Phoebe's death prompted a national conversation about bullying in the US and throughout 2010 the debate raged. When children bully each other, who is to blame -- their parents? The school? The bullies? And who decides when schoolyard taunting crosses over into criminality?

Last year some of these questions were answered when a new piece of legislation, which advocates have called 'Phoebe's Law,' was introduced in Massachusetts. The bill requires school employees to report all instances of bullying and principals to investigate them.

It was designed to "demonstrate to the nation that bullying will no longer be tolerated" said State Representative John Scibak, whose district includes South Hadley, where Phoebe moved to in late 2009 with her mother, Anne, and sister, Lauren. And 41 other states now have anti-bullying laws.

The principal of the school Phoebe attended has retired and was forced to deny that his decision came as a result of the school's handling of the bullying issues. The school had previously ignored the advice of bullying expert Barbara Coloroso, and there was ample evidence that Phoebe was being tormented.

The principal's superior, superintendent, Gus Sayer, insists, "No staff member acted inappropriately". He is one of several officials whose conduct is being examined as part of a federal investigation.

The district attorney who took the seminal cases against the kids who allegedly bullied Phoebe, Elizabeth Scheibel, has now stepped down and has been replaced by David Sullivan. In an interview with a local TV news station last month he said: "Certainly her being an Irish citizen has given great focus to Ireland... going forward I think schools are going to take positive steps not to have bullying."

The cases, meanwhile, churn slowly through the court system in Massachusetts with no end yet in sight.

Sean Mulveyhill is being charged as an adult. The coterie of 'mean girls' -- Ashley Longe, Flannery Mullins, Sharon Velazquez and Kayla Narey have kept a low profile, their long defunct Facebook pages now part of the book of evidence against them.

In court documents Ms Mullins is recorded as saying she was going to "beat Phoebe up" and also told her to "watch out." Ms Longe, meanwhile, publicly told Ms Prince to "close her legs" and told her she "hated stupid sluts" according to prosecutors.

The District Attorney's office in Massachusetts recently refused to drop charges against Austin Renaud, who is being charged with statutory rape but is not believed to have been involved in the bullying.

Sunday Independent

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