News Analysis

Wednesday 1 October 2014

New court papers tell of Phoebe's dark last day

The callousness of Phoebe Prince's bullies was evident even on Facebook, writes Donal Lynch

Published 18/04/2010 | 05:00

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THE Facebook photograph shows Sean Mulveyhill and Katie Broderick laughing with each other at the local school dance in South Hadley, Massachusetts, just two days after their Irish schoolmate, Phoebe Prince, 15, took her own life. Dressed in a tuxedo and ballgown, the handsome 17-year-old football player and his pretty young friend look as though the girl who didn't get to go to the dance is very far from their minds.

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Their indifference was matched by that of many of their classmates. The day after Phoebe died, Mulveyhill's friend Ashley Longe, 16, referred to Phoebe in an especially callous message on her Facebook page: "She brought it on herself." On other websites, offensive messages posted about Phoebe were subsequently taken down.

At the time it appeared that nothing would be done about this online taunting. Phoebe's family had her body cremated and brought home to Co Clare, and locals in Massachusetts believed that the young people who had bullied her would go unpunished.

That all changed last week, when Sean Mulveyhill was formally charged with statutory rape of Phoebe, as well as harassment, civil rights violations and disruption of a school assembly. Nine of his classmates and friends also face charges, ranging from statutory rape to stalking. Among them is Ashley Longe, who faces charges of violations of civil rights as a youthful offender.

In the face of intense criticism, senior school officials have insisted that they became aware that Phoebe was having problems only a week before she died. A subsequent school investigation revealed no previous incidents, they said.

However, in new court papers prosecutors say that, contrary to these claims, the bullying Phoebe endured was "common knowledge" in the school both among staff and the student body, and that she had sought help from school authorities a week before she died. The District Attorney in charge of the case, Elizabeth Scheibel, also says that Phoebe's mother, Ann, spoke to school administrators about concerns that her daughter was being bullied.

Essays written by Phoebe and seen by the Sunday Independent also show that teachers could have had cause for concern. In one she quotes from a book called Cutting, by Dr Steven Levenkron, which deals with self-harm. In her review of the book, Phoebe writes: "From a personal point of view I can see that Levenkron does truly understand the concept of self- mutilation and how it's not about suicide, in most cases it's about trying to transfer the pain from emotional to physical pain which is a lot easier to deal with for most adolescents who most likely don't even understand how they're feeling."

Self-harm is a well known warning sign that someone may be at risk of taking their own life.

In the essays, Phoebe also writes of her dislike of Facebook and Twitter, two social networking websites on which she was being taunted.

The new court documents paint a picture of the final day of Phoebe's life. According to prosecutors, she told school officials that she was "scared and wanted to go home". When the school refused to allow this, Phoebe went back to class and told a classmate that she expected to be beaten up that day.

Later in the day, Phoebe was in the library with friends. There at the same time were Kayla Narey -- who is charged with violation of civil rights resulting in bodily harm -- Mulveyhill, and Ashley Longe. According to prosecutors, Longe began yelling, "I hate stupid sluts,'' and other sexual slurs, at Phoebe. She later called Phoebe an "Irish whore'' and wrote similar descriptions on the library sign-in sheets.

At the end of the school day, Longe allegedly again screamed, "Why don't you just open your legs," at Phoebe in the school auditorium.

Mulveyhill encouraged Longe's behaviour and also called Phoebe a "whore", while Narey, sitting nearby, was laughing, prosecutors said. Just a few minutes later, Longe threw an empty can of a sports drink from a car at Phoebe, who was walking home. Longe laughed and called her a whore, court documents say. Phoebe, according to the witness, was crying.

Later that afternoon, Phoebe took her own life.

At the time of her death, Phoebe had been in the US for just four months. She was born in England, but when she was two years old her family moved to an area near Lisdoonvarna in Co Clare. She attended the local Mary Immaculate Secondary School where her mother taught. Last September her mother took Phoebe and her younger sister Lauren, 12, to South Hadley, where Phoebe's aunt lived, so that the 15-year-old could experience America.

Her death ignited fierce debate in Massachusetts, and in late March legislators voted for a groundbreaking anti-bullying bill. The bill makes illegal bullying at schools, on school buses and through electronic devices such as mobile phones, email and internet social networking sites. It also outlaws retaliation against people who report bullying to authorities, and it requires training for teachers and school staff.

Darby O'Brien, a local public relations specialist and friend of the family, said last week that not enough had been done to protect Phoebe. "If one adult, one official from that school had stepped in during that time, this wouldn't have happened. Why didn't the officials stop it? They claimed they only knew about it the week she died, and now we know that's not true," said O'Brien.

The school's handling of the bullying has also come under fire from prominent figures in America. In an interview last week with Larry King on CNN, the entertainer and comedian Bill Cosby said, "I don't know if 'shocked' is the word as... as much as I just did not believe. I don't believe that you can take a job as a teacher, as a superintendent, as a principal and... and not recognise, when you're being told by parents."

Cosby contrasted what happened to Phoebe with the experience of his own daughter, who had been bullied at her own school. Cosby said teachers in his daughter's school "immediately brought the parents of the child in who was doing the bullying. And it worked".

Reality TV star Khloe Kardashian also expressed her outrage at the bullying that Phoebe endured. "The difference is that today these kids are given so many different outlets to bully. When I was a child and being teased, we didn't have Twitter, Facebook or MySpace, so bullying only went on during school hours," she said. "Now kids go to school and are tortured, and they come home and still have to deal with it online -- there's no escape."

Responding to intense criticism of the website in the wake of Phoebe's death, Facebook last week announced a range of new measures --including a 24-hour police hotline, a multi-million euro education and awareness campaign, and a redesigned abuse reporting system -- but has declined to add a logo linking to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre. Child safety charities, anti-bullying groups and certain politicians have called for Facebook to introduce a so-called "panic button" to the site, but the website has so far resisted.

It will take at least until this coming autumn for all of the defendants charged in the case to have their day in court. All three juvenile defendants, as required under Massachusetts law, must report by Friday afternoon to a juvenile court probation department. They were told by the judge in their cases to avoid the Prince family and keep the office informed of their whereabouts. A pre-trial conference has been scheduled for May 5, with a pre-trial hearing set for July 1.

A pre-trial conference in the cases of Mulveyhill, Narey and Austin Renaud, who is charged with statutory rape, is set for June 29, meaning the defendants will not appear in court until a September 15 pre-trial hearing unless special proceedings are scheduled in the interim. If convicted, Renaud and Mulveyhill could face up to life imprisonment.

A source at the Northwestern District Attorney's office in Massachusetts, which is prosecuting the case, told the Sunday Independent that her office was "extremely confident" of securing convictions in all cases.

Sunday Independent

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