Fear and loathing in South Hadley over Phoebe Prince suicide


Darby O’Brien, 61, is also asking South Hadley High School administrators to own up to their role in Phoebe’s bullying.  

O’Brien, founder and president of Darby O'Brien Advertising and Public Relations in South Hadley, has been very vocal with his opinions at school committee meetings. His outrage and opinions have caused threats to his life.

"I was walking the dog along a major road when this car came right off the road and up on the curb towards me," he said, adding that he managed to get out of the way on time.

He has also received threatening letters.

Some letter writers even went as far as saying they would kill him.

But O'Brien is not prepared to give up the fight to have the school authorities exposed.

O'Brien blew the whistle on the bullying and the school's neglect of the situation after Phoebe's parents visited O'Brien's office in South Hadley. "I've never seen people so broken," shared O'Brien.

"They asked me to keep fighting the fight they couldn't," said O'Brien promising them he would do everything in his power to keep the spotlight on the school authorities.

Phoebe's parents, who are still living in South Hadley with their other children, told O'Brien they are very grateful for the support they are getting from the community.

"There are a few people helping them cope with this tragedy and they are very grateful to them," said O'Brien.

Phoebe’s mother Ann, has a brother, sister and aunt living in South Hadley.

O’Brien confirmed reports that Phoebe’s aunt visited the school last August, a month before her niece started there, to inform them that Phoebe was “susceptible to bullying” and asked them keep an eye on her.

“This school has a history of turning a blind eye to this sort of thing,” he said.

O’Brien told me a story about a mother who came to see him. Her child was also relentlessly bullied in South Hadley and after numerous reports to school authorities nothing was done.

Like Phoebe, this young girl could no longer cope. Her saving grace was that her mother got her into a hospital for treatment.

O'Brien, whose step-daughter attends South Hadley High, said the kids charged should not be left carry “all the blame.”

"It's time someone held the school authorities responsible."

And that is exactly what O'Brien intends to do.

He will not give up - despite the threats on his life.

Both O’Brien and Laughlin feel alone.  

“People are backing down,” said Laughlin.

“They are becoming afraid and think if they keep quiet this will all go away and be forgotten about,” she added.

O’Brien and a gentleman by the name of Luke Gelinas, who has two children the South Hadley school system, are the last two standing on the issue.

“We had another man, Dave Leonard, whose daughter was also bullied in the school, but he died tragically in a motorcycle accident recently.”

O’Brien misses Leonard’s passion. He attended the school meetings wearing t-shirts with Phoebe’s picture on it.

“He, like me and Luke was passionate for change.”

Although feeling the pressure from the town’s people, O’Brien will continue the battle for justice.

As I continued on my journey through South Hadley, I was quickly learning that Laughlin, Clow and O’Brien were the minority in their opinions.

The towns folks were expressing their anger at the “overdramatic” (someone said this to me) attention the media are giving this story.

“Kids kill themselves in every town across the country but it’s the media that’s keeping the focus on our small town and it’s not very fair,” said Francis Ambrose.

Not wanting any more disruptions to life as she knows it in South Hadley, Ambrose asked the media to leave the school, its staff and the kids alone.
Ambrose was not alone in her feelings.

Robert Castro said South Hadley “is a good town where people are nice.”
“It’s getting an awful reputation and it’s not justified,” added Castro.
When I asked him if he thought the school should take responsibility he immediately defended them.

“They didn’t know it was going on so what could they have done,” he said.
I quickly tried to tell him the facts that have come to light since the Northeastern District Attorney’s office concluded their investigations but he didn’t want to know.

“The kids are getting enough slack for what they did, isn’t that enough,” he asked, waving a hand in my direction and walking away.

A woman in her early forties spoke to me on the condition of anonymity.
 She admitted her children – now in their early 20s- attended South Hadley High School and they were bullied.

“My son more so than my daughter and when I reported it to the principle he said he would put a stop to it,” she said.