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Yes, Phoebe was vulnerable to bullying, says Dad

For Jeremy Prince the long wait has ended; he can finally get some closure. Last Wednesday and Thursday the long-running prosecutions against the teenagers who bullied his daughter Phoebe reached their dramatic conclusion in a Massachusetts courtroom.

In plea deals, Sharon Chanon Velazquez, 17, was sentenced to probation until her 18th birthday; Flannery Mullins, 18, was sentenced to probation until her 19th birthday, while Ashley Longe, 18, was was sentenced to probation until her 19th birthday and 100 hours community service.

At Wednesday's hearing, another former student, Kayla Narey, got a year's probation and and 100 hours community service. A fifth-form student, Sean Mulveyhill, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of criminal harassment and was sentenced to one year's probation and 100 hours community service; both students agreed plea deals. The sixth accused, Austin Renaud, had a charge of statutory rape dropped.

In a moving, victim-impact statement, his wife Anne revealed in court the torment her daughter suffered at the hands of school bullies before her suicide in January 2010. "It would be easier," Phoebe wrote in a text message, "if they had handed me a noose."

One of the accused teens wept openly with remorse. Another bowed his head as he was described as a "predator". And, all the while, the debate raged as to whether these kids were themselves victims -- of an overzealous prosecutor and a school which allowed them to take the rap.

While events unfolded in America, Jeremy was anxiously waiting for news at his home in Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, where he had remained with Phoebe's younger sister Lauren -- the family wanted to spare her the media circus.

His own victim-impact statement was delivered in writing to the judge. "It has been a difficult time, but there is some relief at it now being over," Jeremy told the Sunday Independent after the cases were decided. "I miss Phoebe terribly. We all do. We have coped by caring for Lauren."

Jeremy, who is originally from England, has lived in Ireland since 1996 when he moved to Clare with his American-born wife Anne O'Brien and their elder child, Phoebe.

The Oxford scholar had three grown- up children from a previous marriage -- he lost his first wife to illness some years previously. He settled near Ballyvaughan, where he established a business selling plants, shrubs and blueberries. His wife Anne qualified as a teacher and took up a post teaching English at the local Mary Immaculate Secondary school in Lisdoonvarna. He was extremely close to his elder daughter Phoebe, and hoped she would grow up to be a writer.

It had been reported that even during her life in Ireland Phoebe had been the target of school bullies, the implication somehow being that she had brought it on herself. Jeremy simply responds: "Yes, she was vulnerable to bullying. Bright and talented people often are. But she didn't have any more problems than any normal adolescent girl."

A year and a half ago, the decision was made that Anne, Phoebe's mother, would take a year's leave of absence from school and bring her two daughters to live in her home state of Massachusetts. Given his close relationship with Phoebe, was he happy about her moving thousands of miles away?

"I was happy that the girls were going to connect with their heritage and we knew the move was only temporary."

Phoebe seemed happy initially in her new home in South Hadley -- a working-class town in the Connecticut River Valley, about 100 miles from Boston. The family seemed to be settling in well. Phoebe made friends and became involved with a local boy.

Behind the scenes, however, trouble was brewing. On November 2 months after Phoebe moved over, she attempted suicide. Jeremy says that he "saw that as a cry for help. It's not infrequent that people take a lot of pills and then tell someone".

Meanwhile the atmosphere in the school had changed for Phoebe. Misjudging the network of alliances that ruled the school corridors, she became involved with the boyfriend of another girl, unleashing a tirade of abuse from the girl and her friends. From being the popular new girl Phoebe was now persona non grata at South Hadley High. Racial epithets were hurled behind her back. She was called "the Irish whore".

At school she was continually in fear of being beaten up. The torment continued in cyberspace, where through a friend's Facebook account Phoebe saw yet more abuse hurled at her. Jeremy says he had no idea that she was being bullied -- she kept this to herself. "If I had known I would have been straight over." He visited Massachusetts at Christmas and she seemed in good form. They went sledging on the snow and Phoebe seemed excited about an upcoming school dance to which a boy had invited her. "Every girl's Cinderella fantasy", Jeremy says.

"They went ahead with that," he adds, his voice cracking with emotion. "And while that ball was going Phoebe still got to wear her new dress, but this time her accessories were the flowers in her coffin."

The moment he learned his daughter had taken her own life is burned in his memory.

"I slept right through all the phone calls. A neighbour had to come and find me. In a way, that was good, actually, for someone to be there with me. My mind was racing."

He made arrangements to travel to Massachusetts as quickly as possible and had some awkward questions to answer at immigration in Shannon. "Going to America with a one-way ticket is difficult in this day and age.

"But I explained why I was going and they were understanding." The school in South Hadley, meanwhile, was busy washing its hands of the incident.

"It started immediately," Jeremy says. "[Dan] Smith [the school principal] publicly said that Phoebe was 'complicated'. I was deeply angered at the bullies and the school. I wanted to kill the lot of them. Their whole stance was defensive and despicable. Their ethos was to pretend it didn't happen. They have never acknowledged any wrongdoing to me."

Phoebe was cremated, and the journey home with her ashes was an emotional one.

The tiny church in Fanore was packed on the day of her service. "The community in Ireland has been magnificent," Jeremy says. "There was not a spare place in the church that day. I could not walk anywhere in the town without people expressing their condolences, or wishing me and my family well. And all media inquiries were entirely discreet."

Jeremy was told about the groundbreaking bullying charges before they were announced. District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel's decision to charge six teenagers with harassment and other crimes made international headlines and focused the world's attention on South Hadley.

The despicably gloating Facebook postings made by some of the girls in the case after Phoebe's death were made public, and the public followed the fate of the teens through endless court appearances. Bullying became one of the most discussed social issues of 2010.

The law was changed in Massachusetts in the aftermath of her death, criminalising bullying. Celebrities such as Madonna and Ellen Degeneres spoke out on the subject. Barack Obama organised a conference on bullying at the White House. A philanthropist, J Michael Mahony, founded a scholarship in Phoebe's name at the University of Berkeley in California.

As heartening as it was to see Phoebe's memory kept alive for her family back home in Ireland, it was also difficult to grieve privately while their daughter was transformed into a martyr to a cause, a poster child for anti-bullying campaigns.

Jeremy now says he regrets that Phoebe ever went to America, but he is sure that the right decision was made given what the family knew at the time. "If she hadn't gone to America I would still have my daughter. But we were doing what seemed right at the time. That is all you can ever do."

When the plea deals were made in Massachusetts last week, it was said by some that District Attorney Sullivan, who took over the cases from Elizabeth Scheibel, had not shared his predecessor's enthusiasm for the bullying charges. Jeremy says this is inaccurate. "The wheels of justice turn slowly but I have nothing but admiration for the people at the DA's office who worked on these cases. They did everything they could and in the end the people who did these things to Phoebe were held responsible for their actions."

He bears no ill will towards the bullies and recognises that anger is toxic: "Those young people have been convicted of a criminal act in court. They will have to live with that, but their lives will go on. There is no such thing as justice really. If victims were to pass sentences we'd be building new prisons every day. The decisions in these matters are made by society and that's as it should be."

His daughter's legacy, he says, is that the same torment might not be visited on another vulnerable young person.

"Phoebe became many things to many people," he says. "But to us she was simply our beautiful, intelligent daughter. We were lucky to have the time we had with her. I miss her deeply."

Sunday Independent