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The legacy of Phoebe Prince: bullying and blame in cyberspace and the school system

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Media and news outlets have been abuzz since January 14 about 15-year-old Irish Phoebe Prince from a small town in Co.Clare, Ireland, a student of South Hadley High School in Massachusetts, who hanged herself in a stairwell after enduring approximately three months of relentless verbal and physical harassment by her new classmates, nine of whom faced a range of felony charges after Phoebe's suicide including, in the case of Sean Mulveyhill, statuatory rape.


After briefly dating 17-year-old Sean Mulveyhill, Phoebe was met with a campaign of abuse by Mulveyhill's ex-girlfriend 17-year-old Kayla Narey and her friends.

The New York Daily News reported that "students said Phoebe was called "Irish slut" and "whore" on Twitter, Craigslist, Facebook and Formspring. Her books were routinely knocked out of her hands, items were flung at her, her face was scribbled out of photographs on the school walls, and threatening text messages were sent to her cell phone."

This continued until January 14, when Phoebe went home and killed herself, to be found by her younger sister.

Some are blaming school officials, who several students, parents and community members say were aware of the extent of the bullying and turned a blind eye, exercising a kids-will-be-kids mentality and underplaying the severity of the consequences.

I can't help but be reminded of one of the most powerful lines in the 1999 film The Virgin Suicides: after the young Cecilia's first suicide attempt, a patronizing doctor says to her, 'What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets.' Cecilia deadpans, 'Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a thirteen-year-old girl."

There are a lot of issues boiling under the surface here: xenophobia, teenage sexual agency, the responsibility of authority figures to negotiate the complex world of high school social interactions and know when to step in with force.

Matters are complicated by the fact that some of the most damaging actions of the teenagers who endeavored to make Phoebe's life unbearable happened outside of the classroom, as the bullies utilized the Internet, Facebook, Twitter and texting to permeate Phoebe's consciousness with hate speech: chillingly, this continued even after her death. "The kids have a way of communicating with each other without us knowing about it,'' offered school superintendent Gus Sayer lamely. "They really have their own world."

Bullying is in some ways similar to rape cases in that the victim often feels shame about the violation, whether physical or emotional. In wanting badly not to talk about what has been done to them, there is a significant tendency not to report both crimes.

In Phoebe's case, however, it seems sufficient warning was given for school officials to act. Before she started attending South Hadley, her aunt told the school she had been bullied before and was particularly vulnerable. Students report that Phoebe had visibly cried outside classrooms and in the nurse's office. Phoebe's mother asked the school in November whether she ought to be worried about the threats her daughter was receiving.

This seems to leave little question as to who is responsible for Phoebe Prince's death.

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