Seven years after Phoebe Prince's tragic death changed laws in America, and as one of her tormentors is back in court, our reporter talks to Phoebe's father and sister about life after her death
The name on the charge sheet was unfamiliar but the face and the alleged crime ensured that the case still made headline news across the US state of Massachusetts this summer. Ashley Koske (formerly Ashley Longe), one of the young people who bullied Irish teenager Phoebe Prince before her suicide in 2009, will stand trial next month, in a separate incident, on charges of threatening to commit murder, harassment and damage to a motor vehicle. She denies the charges.
In this case, the alleged victim told police that the conflict arose last year over an ex-boyfriend and that, as in Phoebe's case, some of the alleged abuse happened over social media. The now 23-year-old Koske is alleged to have threatened to slash the throat of the alleged victim, who added that she was warned by Koske's family to take the threats quite seriously. The judge in the case set a trial date for September 19, and for the young woman in the dock it might have felt like history repeating.
Koske was also arrested on DUI (driving under the influence) charges a number of years ago. Certainly, the assurances her lawyer gave that she would stay out of trouble seem somewhat hollow in retrospect.
Thousands of miles away, near Doolin in Co Clare, Phoebe's father Jeremy Prince has no wish to dwell, but says that his surprise is not that one of the tormentors of his deceased daughter has again come before the courts, but that this has "only" happened to one of them (although, in fact, another teen involved in the case, Austin Renaud was also since charged with drink driving).
And although Phoebe's mother, Anne O'Brien, praised Ashley's "ownership and responsibility" immediately after the case had ended, Jeremy points out that none of the kids involved in the bullying had reached out to the family in the six years since the proceedings concluded.
Those years have been marked by pain and tumult as well as more death in the Prince family. Phoebe's aunt Eileen, who spoke movingly about her niece on the Today Show, passed away from cancer three years ago.
The grief over Phoebe's death has naturally taken its toll. Though separated, Jeremy and Anne continue to live in the same house. Phoebe's younger sister, Lauren, has just completed her Leaving Cert and intends at some point to study pharmacy. She says she bears no grudge against Koske. " I feel Ashley was the only one of those students to show genuine remorse. She had wanted to have the meeting (with Phoebe's mother) from the start, therefore we are very sorry that she is having trouble," she told the Sunday Independent.
The news of the Koske case spurred memories of Phoebe's story which has continued to resonate around the world. In fact, in the years since she died, the long shadows her story cast appeared everywhere from news to pop culture. There were echoes of it in many of the bullying cases that followed in the US, including the case of Michelle Carter who was recently convicted of encouraging her boyfriend to kill himself, also in Massachusetts. That was a case that had obvious parallels with Phoebe's situation, where some classmates goaded her and gloated after she took her own life.
After the big budget Netflix teen suicide series 13 Reasons Why premiered last month, Jeremy expressed concern that it may have glamorised the subject for a young audience. "I haven't seen it yet," he said, "but from what I understand, it deals with the period around the suicide. I think it would be far better if they showed the long-term consequences of suicide on a community and a family. I think there is a line to be walked, and you have to be able to discuss these ideas in art, but at the same time it would certainly be responsible to give a clearer picture of the devastation it causes."
Looking back now it is impossible not to wonder how things might have panned out had Phoebe remained in Ireland. She had spent most of her life in Clare, where her father and mother had moved in 1996, when she was just two years old. Jeremy had gone there to work as a landscape gardener. Her mother, Anne, was a schoolteacher from Massachusetts, and had taken up a post at the local Mary Immaculate Secondary School.
In September of 2009, Anne decided she would take her two girls to South Hadley, a small town in Massachusetts, near where she came from, with Jeremy remaining behind in Ireland. Initially, the move seemed to have gone well. The girls kept in touch with their father by phone and seemed to settle in the local schools. It would subsequently emerge that the high school Phoebe attended had an issue with bullying, and fairly soon, the Irish girl was drawn into the Mean Girls-style politics of the classroom.
"I had been looking forward to the move, it was like a movie. It was an adventure at first," Lauren recalls. "At first I thought Phoebe felt the same way. We were very close but we fought all the time too, the way sisters do. She loved shopping and she just made fun in every single situation, I really looked up to her. I did find the atmosphere in the school hard. You have to understand I'd come from a school with 20 kids in it in Clare and this was just much bigger. It was like something from a film; all the little cliques were there. I had a hard time fitting in and, looking back, I can say that it must have been the same for Phoebe. She always stuck up for me. If I had known what was going on with her, 11 years-old or not, I would have marched in there and done something, but she didn't tell me about what was going on. I think she wanted to protect me from it, whenever I saw her she had a smile on her face."
During the autumn semester, Phoebe attracted the attentions of a popular older boy, a "senior", Sean Mulveyhill, 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 set off jealousy on the school corridors.
A group of girls decided to gang up on Phoebe and attempt to ostracise her. Objects like pencils were thrown at her in class, she was threatened, and called 'a whore' and 'a slut'. The bullying got worse. The day before she died Phoebe had been in tears at school. 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 tried to ignore them, but inside she was in great pain. Her mother would later read out one of her last anguished text messages: "I think Sean condoning this is one of the final nails in my coffin."
Phoebe Prince killed herself the next day. In perhaps the cruellest aspect of the entire story, it was Lauren who discovered the body of her beloved elder sister.
"I stayed late that day because I had gardening club. I walked off the bus and up the steps of the house and I saw a sort of blur to my left and I looked and it was her, she was there. And I just kind of looked, I was in shock. I picked up the phone and dialled 911 and I was sure they would be able to help her. When you are 11 years old, you think that 911 fixes everything. The paramedics were there quickly I think, it is all a bit of a blur, and two policemen just sort of chatted to me. I think they were trying to distract me from what was happening."
Lauren did not need to be told in so many words that paramedics had not been able to save Phoebe. Her mother's tears of grief when they saw each other were all the information she needed. Incredibly, Lauren went to school the very next day. For her, this was a coping mechanism, an attempt to reach for the normality of routine, but there were others in the town who more callously continued about their schedule. Although many students reached out to Anne and some held a candlelit vigil at the school for Phoebe, it was decided that the Cotillion - a dance similar to the Debs here - would go ahead.
"I can see that they'd want to go ahead, but at the same time, in my mind I can still see the dress she had picked out for the Cotillion as she lay in her casket, with her red shoes, and it was horrible," Lauren recalls. "That was something she was really excited about."
Over The Rainbow was the song played at Phoebe's funeral.
Meanwhile the insensitivity from some in the town was breathtaking. One girl who would later speak on camera to reporters about her shock and upset at Phoebe's death, was pictured laughing at the Cotillion with Sean Mulveyhill, who later posted the pictures online.
Where blame for Phoebe's death lay was much debated locally. The school superintendent suggested Phoebe had "adjustment issues", but the school did launch an investigation into how she had been bullied.
This was not enough for some locals who set up a Facebook page alleging that Phoebe had been 'murdered' by a list of named girls. Possible bullying expulsions were announced, and eventually it was decided that a number of girls, who were known to have participated in bullying Phoebe, would not be re-enrolling.
What really made the case an international news story, however, was the decision to charge six of Phoebe's classmates, including Longe, then 18, Sharon Velasquez, then 17, 18-year-olds Sean Mulveyhill and Kayla Narey, and Austin Renaud, then 17, with a range of criminal charges, ranging from statutory rape by both boys, to harassment and civil rights violations for both the girls and Mulveyhill (Renaud was not involved in the bullying and the charge of statutory rape against him was later dropped).
The charges ignited massive debate all across America and the national and international news media camped out in South Hadley, a town which found itself at the centre of a debate about bullying, social media and the Lord Of The Flies-like brutality of the modern playground. To some, the prosecutions were just desserts, while to others the cases smacked of legal overreach, driven by an ambitious prosecutor.
In America, there was intense focus on the cases, with the subtext to much of the coverage the thought that "these brats could be one of your kids". Massachusetts is the most Irish state in the union and, by and large, its media came out strongly in support of justice for Phoebe.
The teens struck plea deals with the prosecution where, in exchange for pleading guilty on the misdemeanour charge of criminal harassment, the more serious charges they faced were dropped.
Both Sean Mulveyhill and Kayla Narey were ordered to do 100 hours of community service to help at-risk children, complete their high school education, and were barred from profiting from their involvement in the case.
Phoebe's parents expressed relief that the cases were finally over but many wondered why the State Prosecutor had decided to elevate the teens - and by extension Phoebe herself - to the level of cause celebre if she could not be sure of seeing the cases through to the end, and making sure that the charges that were brought, would stick.
The level of infamy the young people in the case faced is hard to overstate: In the aftermath of the verdicts some of them were the subject of online death threats, something that was condemned by Phoebe's father.
"As far as the school was concerned, the superintendent and the headmaster disappeared," Jeremy says. "There was never any putting any of the hands up in terms of any blame." He and Anne would eventually settle a civil action against the school district.
Phoebe's family returned to Ireland - a move welcomed by Lauren - and tried to continue with life as best they could. Lauren sought psychological help for what she had gone through, and says that was helpful. "I did (see a counsellor) for a long time. Talking about stuff really helps things."
More than anything, Phoebe's case seemed to redefine perceptions of bullying and the responsibilities of schools. Instead of bullying being seen as an inevitable part of growing up, it has now become a social ill to be tackled.
As someone who covered the cases in the courtrooms, I saw the intense interest in this small family which was being forced to cope with the worst thing that can happen to any parent or sibling, in the spotlight of international media attention. They handled it with great dignity and over the years have worked through some of the pain and loss.
"I am an English Protestant but Phoebe's ceremony was conducted by a Catholic priest in the States", Jeremy explains.
"I went to talk to him, to ask him how to heal, and he told me that forgiveness was the key, and I found once I was able to forgive I was able to get through some of the grief.
"I was also able to throw myself into some of the anti-bullying campaigning which also helped: there was such a big reaction to the case and I decided I would do something good with that."
Phoebe's ashes are now with her family in Ireland, and while her legacy lives on in American law and pop culture, it is in Clare that the memories burn most brightly.
"She was my big sister I looked up to her so much" Lauren says. "We bickered but at the end of the day I knew she loved me back. I look at families with girls with older sisters and it still makes me so sad because I am missing out. I'll always miss her."
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article please contact the Samaritans on 116123 for support or visit the website on www.samaritans.org.
Pieta House can be contacted on 1800 247 247. For more information on Pieta House visit www.pieta.ie.
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