independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Bullied to death

She swapped a small seaside hamlet in County Clare for a tough suburb of Boston. It would not be a happy exchange for 15-year-old Phoebe Prince who earlier this year took her own life. The pretty teenager was the victim of vicious high school stalking and bullying, a lot of it carried out in cyberspace. Donal Lynch reports from America

The photograph shows a young girl sitting in a schoolroom, peering out from under her fringe. She's smiling shyly at the person holding the camera phone. Around her neck she wears a bright orange scarf, something that would sometimes be roughly pulled from her neck by bullies, but today remains just so. It's a quiet, unremarkable moment in the life of a 15-year-old, another insignificant document of adolescence to perhaps be uploaded to Facebook, MySpace, Bebo; evidence of a burgeoning young life.

It's unlikely that either the schoolgirl who took the photo, nor its beautiful young subject could have guessed that this would be one of the last images taken of Phoebe Nora Mary Prince. Within weeks she was dead and news organisations all over America would trawl the internet for this last known picture of the young girl from Co Clare. They would camp outside her grieving mother's house in South Hadley, Massachusetts, preventing the distraught woman from returning to Ireland with her daughter's ashes. The photo would make its way on to Facebook not as one innocent snapshot in an album of girlish good times, but as the poignant central image in an internet campaign, which would quickly be joined by over 58,000 people. Fundraisers would be held. There would be angry public meetings. Resignations would be called for; the principal of the secondary school and the chief of police in South Hadley. Martha Croakley, the formidable attorney general of Massachusetts, would be petitioned by locals to get involved.

This girl with the gorgeous, lilting accent had arrived full of dreams for a new life, they raged, and now the citizens of the most Irish-American of all US States would send her ashes home in a jar.

How and why Phoebe Prince's life ended at just 15 years of age is a complex story but to even begin to answer it we must return to where she grew up, in a tiny area called Ardeamish, which nestles on the Co Clare coast, between Doolin and Lisdoonvarna. Her family arrived there from Bedford, in England, in 1996, when Phoebe was just two years old. Her father Jeremy had come there to work as a landscape gardener, selling blueberries, shrubs and other plants. Her mother, Anne O'Brien, had gone back to college later in life. She had qualified as a schoolteacher and had taken up a post at the local Mary Immaculate Secondary School. Phoebe had a younger sister, Lauren, a keen athlete, and three older siblings -- Simon, Tessa and Bridget. For most of the last decade and a half, the younger girls lived with their parents in a picturesque house at the back of the cemetery, facing the wild Atlantic ocean.

Even as a family of "blow-ins" the Princes were well liked and are described by locals as "very decent people". Jeremy would take his pint at the local pub and Phoebe was extremely close to him. On an online blog, set up by one of her future English teachers, she described the long chats they had: "no subject is off limits... sex, drugs and rock and roll to ancient religions, politics and criminal justice." They're the words of a sensitive, intelligent young girl and Phoebe was well liked by her peers. Then, in September of last year, the family decided to move with Phoebe and Lauren to America, as they said in the death notice, "so that Phoebe could experience America and be near her family, especially her Uncle John, Auntie Eileen and cousins Brendan and Molly."

South Hadley, where they arrived, is about as far from the image of Massachusetts as an affluent Irish-Catholic enclave as it is possible to get without leaving the Bay State. It is one of several fairly grim, lower-middle-class towns that line the Connecticut River valley, about 90 miles from Boston. The locals speak with broad, flat accents. The literacy standards in the schools are below the national average. Anne rented a picket fence-fronted duplex at Newton Street, a few blocks from South Hadley High School, which Phoebe would later attend.

The Irish-born human rights academic and Obama advisor, Samantha Power, once said that her experience going from an Irish secondary school into the clique-ish "jockocracy" of an American high school had prepared her like nothing else for work in the world's most dangerous war zones. For Phoebe, the sniper fire began almost immediately. If her accent and good looks won her some novelty value she was completely unprepared for the variegated networks of alliances and rivalries that ruled the corridors of South Hadley High. The school had had a longstanding and very serious problem with bullying. In the month Phoebe arrived in the town, school authorities decided that things had got so out of hand that they arranged for Barbara Colloroso, a nationally renowned expert on bullying, to pay a visit. Colloroso had previously been brought in to the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota after a 16-year-old shot dead seven people at the school where he had been bullied. For South Hadley, she should have been the cavalry.

But while the management of the school and the parents said they wanted change they appeared paralysed by inaction and disorganisation. Colloroso gave a public talk that was attended by only 10 parents and made recommendations to the school's management that she later said were never implemented. One of the biggest problems, she added, was that the school had no clear policy on cyberbullying -- a fateful omission given what would later happen to Phoebe. The internet was a virtual cauldron, in which the bullies of South Hadley could stir their grievances and skewer their victims. Protected by the anonymity of the web they would also post sexually explicit information about themselves and gossip about fellow students.

Phoebe was not a part of this. She kept in touch with her friends back home in Clare but the fierce online jousting of the kids at South Hadley High would have been new to her as would the sheer level of physical aggression that was commonplace in the school -- younger kids being slammed up against lockers was a frequent occurrence. One former student, Lex Zypher, described the car park of the building as a "war zone."

In this violent, hormonal maelstrom, Phoebe was completely overwhelmed. And in some ways her looks and charm were to be her downfall. During the autumn semester at South Hadley High she won the attentions of a popular older boy, a "senior" who was named "Class Flirt" in a poll of his peers for the yearbook. They went out for about two weeks and the brief union would have represented a social coup for Phoebe. She wasn't thought to be too upset when it finished and perhaps innocently hoped it would have the happy by-product of elevating her in the popularity stakes of the school. She was like any other 15-year-old; she wanted to be liked.

What Phoebe didn't realise was that the boy who had set his sights on her was deeply embedded in the clique of pretty, popular girls who would later become notorious as The Untouchable Mean Girls of South Hadley. And they considered the Irish freshman's daring raid on their prized alpha male a serious breach of school protocol. In the nastiest ways possible they set out to curb this new pup of her "hubris" and mobilised a coterie of bullies against her.

From being the interesting new girl, Phoebe found herself worse than persona non grata. She was stalked in the hallways. Books were knocked out of her hand and pencils were thrown at her in class. Everywhere she went she was taunted. Her mobile phone number was passed around and threatening text messages were sent to her. On various internet sites unprintable epithets were hurled at her. Behind her back down the corridor came the endless, ringing chant: "Irish whore".

As the weeks passed the bullying became worse and worse. On January 14 of this year it all came to a head. According to a mother of a boy who was friends with her, Phoebe had been hysterically upset during the day at the school and had seen the school medical officer. Later, as she was walking home from school, a group of girls screamed insults at her from the window of a passing car and threw a can of Red Bull at her. Phoebe kept on walking.

It was later that afternoon that Lauren, Phoebe's 12-year-old sister, made the terrible discovery. Phoebe had hanged herself in one of the wardrobes in the family home. The young girl was left to dial 911. By 4.40pm the house was surrounded by police and paramedics but they were unable to revive Phoebe.

Within hours the tragic news had spread like wildfire through South Hadley. Flowers were scattered outside the house, candles were lit and a group of neighbours hovered near the white picket fence outside the house. That night, in the car park of the school, a group of kids held a candlelit vigil. Friends helped a distraught Anne O'Brien to pack up her belongings and move to her sister's. She would never again live in the house on Newton Street.

Phoebe had been due to attend the local dance or 'Cotillion' two days after she died. Despite the fact that one of their own had died, some 500 students of South Hadley attended the dance. One girl, Katie Broderick, who would later speak on camera to reporters about her shock and upset at Phoebe's death, was pictured laughing at the Cotillion with the boy who had gone out with Phoebe. He posted the pictures on his Facebook page. Both Broderick and the boy refused to comment when contacted.

At a service two days later, wearing the dress she was to wear to the Cotillion, Phoebe's body was laid out at St Patrick's Catholic Church in South Hadley. As Somewhere Over The Rainbow was played many of those gathered wept openly. There was a contingent of people from Clare, including many of Phoebe's family back home. In the following days a death notice appeared in the paper -- the family had waited until afterwards because they wanted to keep the service as private as possible.

In the death notice, they said, "Phoebe was gifted with exceptional beauty -- but that is not important. She was gifted with a sharp and creative brain -- but that is not important. She had impressive artistic talent -- but that is not important. What her family and friends from both sides of the Atlantic grieve in is the loss of the incandescent enthusiasm of a life blossoming."

They revealed that they had set up a scholarship fund in Phoebe's name (details at the end of this piece). The notice ended with a quote in Irish: "Go gcoinni Dia I mbois a laimhe thu" -- May God keep you in the palm of his hand. Phoebe would later be cremated and her ashes brought back to Ireland where a service was held for her at a packed church in Fanore, Co Clare.

Initially Phoebe's death was treated as another teen suicide -- a tragically regular occurrence in US public schools. David LaBrie, the police chief in South Hadley said: "A teenage girl appears to have taken her own life ... a myriad of issues could have been involved." Gus Sayer, the superintendent for South Hadley High, revealed Phoebe had been having counselling for "adjustment issues" but he said he could not speculate on why she did what she did.

Phoebe's classmates were perfectly prepared to speculate, however. The names of the four girls alleged to be involved in bullying Phoebe were buzzing all over the internet by that weekend. A Facebook page was set up entitled "Expel the Girls Who Caused Phoebe Prince To Commit Suicide". It soon had over 20,000 members, including Phoebe's brother Simon and several of her friends. Another Facebook page entitled "We Murdered Phoebe Prince" listed the names of the girls and was removed by the website.

One of the bullies responded with extreme callousness. A screensave of a Facebook post (since removed) by one of the girls alleged to have been involved reads: "It was her own fault." This same girl later joined remembrance and anti-bullying groups online.

In the following days counselling sessions were held for students and a collection jar was placed in the main hall of the school with the words 'Let Our Silence Be Heard' written on it. The principal of the school, Daniel Smith, issued a letter to parents, in which he said that an investigation was underway to find out "what role bullying may have played in Phoebe's decision".

Meanwhile, the internet vigilantes of South Hadley were taking matters into their own hands. The addresses and phone numbers of the four girls alleged to have been involved in bullying Phoebe were posted on several web forums. What was interesting at that stage was many people who barely knew Phoebe in real life were prepared to install themselves as chief mourners. One boy who didn't know her at all set up a "remembrance page" for her. Another girl who had had written some fairly offensive stuff about Phoebe when she was alive posted all over this web page, loudly proclaiming her grief.

The teenagers of South Hadley appeared to be addicted to the drama. Meanwhile, the wider community in the town were extremely resentful at the media attention and with one or two exceptions they shut out journalists and other outsiders inquiring about Phoebe. One father alleged that his daughter was beaten up after speaking to reporters.

Among themselves, however, the pent-up anger and grief began to surface. In mid-February there was a public meeting in the town at which passions ran high. Hundreds of parents called for the girls who had been involved in "driving this girl to kill herself" to be removed from the school. They had collected over 1,000 signatures for a petition demanding action on the part of the school board.

On February 15, superintendent Sayer confirmed that some students would face hearings leading to possible expulsions. He revealed that two students had been disciplined in the days leading up to Phoebe's death for calling her a vulgar name in class. He added that officials had not known about most of the harassment until after Phoebe's death. On February 22, Sayer announced that a number of the girls who bullied Phoebe in the lead up to her death would not be re-enrolling at South Hadley High and wouldn't be returning. He declined to comment on whether the students had left voluntarily before they could be expelled. Principal Daniel Smith added: "These students' lives have also been dramatically altered ... They won't be graduating from South Hadley High School."

The authorities at the school have claimed that even bullies are entitled to privacy and due process but for the parents in the area, many of Phoebe's friends and the wider community in South Hadley this has not been enough. There is a feeling that the kids who were involved got the face-saving option of simply not returning to the school. Susan Smith, whose son Nick was friends with Phoebe, sharply criticised the "secrecy" surrounding the punishments and others have chimed in too. Writing two weeks ago in the Boston Globe, Kevin Cullen wondered when there would finally be "justice for Phoebe". He continued: "The powers that be in South Hadley are acting as if this is nothing more than a dry legal process. But truth isn't driving this process. Liability is. Avoiding a lawsuit from some mean kid's parent is more important than the truth."

While the bullies have moved on and appear to be maddeningly free from the consequences of their actions, they may not have heard the end of the matter. According to Gus Sayer: "The district attorney and police investigations of Phoebe Prince's death continue and may lead to criminal prosecutions."

In the end, whatever the police and the DA decide, it is left to the family, not the wider twittering community of self-appointed chief mourners, to pick up the pieces.

For Phoebe's parents, any future action against the bullies will be scant consolation for the loss of their beloved daughter. Phoebe is at peace, back home in Co Clare, where the Mean Girls of South Hadley can not touch her.

Donations can be sent to the Phoebe Prince Scholarship Fund at Peoples Bank, 494 Newton Street, South Hadley, MA 01075

Sunday Independent

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