The tragic suicide of Irish teenager Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts on January 14 has parents speaking out against bullying, and seeking strong measures to avoid similar tragedies in the future.
It’s nearly three weeks since Phoebe, 15, from Fanore, Co. Clare, was found hanging in her closet by her younger sister, and locals are furious that little is being done to address the issue of bullying which is believed to have led to her suicide.
Parents and students at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts are calling for the district’s superintendent, Gus Sayer, to be fired.
Concerned parents and students were present to protest at a meeting of the town’s Board of Selectmen on Tuesday night to highlight the need for punishment to be administrated to the students at South Hadley who bullied Phoebe, subsequently leading to her death on January 14.
One of the organizers of the protest said, “We are going to try and make a petition to have the superintendent removed because he is not doing his job . . . and at the last meeting he kept rolling his eyes at us as comments and questions were being said.”
Erica Laughlin, 39, is the mother of four children and lives in South Hadley, a small town in Western Massachusetts.
Laughlin wrote on IrishCentral.com that the town of South Hadley “sadly has a long history of its kids being cruel.”
Laughlin grew up in a nearby town and recently moved to South Hadley with her husband and children.
“My husband and I decided last fall, before we even moved here, not to enroll our children in this town’s schools specifically because of the reputation the kids here have for being relentlessly cruel,” wrote Laughlin.
“These kids and their families need to be held responsible for their part in contributing to the death of this beautiful young lady. Phoebe lived literally right around the corner from us. We will not allow her to be forgotten.”
Laughlin also said school officials need to be held accountable for their part in Prince’s death.
“I don’t know why somebody was not kicking down doors for this girl. Maybe if enough people show up and start to make noise, people will start to do something.”
Another parent whose children attend the high school Prince briefly went to said she attended a school meeting last week where parents came forward and spoke of the brutal teasing that their own children have been subjected to.
“This has been an issue for many years, and the school committee has done nothing about it,” she wrote anonymously.
An expert in bullying, Barbara Coloroso, was brought into South Hadley to speak to the students following Prince’s death.
Coloroso, who also advised students at Columbine High School after two boys who were bullied shot 13 others in 1999, told the Boston Globe that the students of South Hadley “wanted to know what could have been done to prevent Phoebe’s death. It appeared to them that nothing was being done.”
Coloroso also visited the school in September 2009 and said South Hadley High has not implemented the measures she suggested then.
“They said they had a warning and suspension policy in place,” she said. “But it was nebulous. And the policy didn’t include cyber bullying.’’
She added, “There’s got to be a procedure in place to determine how they handle the bully, how they protect the target, and what they are going to do with any bystander who may have contributed to this mess and protect them if they are a witness. They don’t have that yet.”
Last week two students were suspended from South Hadley in connection with their role in an assault days after Phoebe’s death. It is believed these are the same students who taunted Phoebe at school and in cyberspace through websites like Facebook and through text messages on her cell phone. Their punishment has not been disclosed.
State Representative John Scibak, a South Hadley Democrat and former selectman, is seeking answers from Sayer.
“You have a community looking for answers, and they should get them,” Scibak said.
“It’s reasonable for parents to ask what they’re doing and what they intend to do to address this particular incident.”
A spokesperson for the Northwestern district attorney’s office investigating the role of bullying in Phoebe’s suicide told the Irish Voice on Tuesday that the case is still open and an investigation is still continuing.
An anti-bullying legislation bill, which was already in the works since a hearing before the Joint Committee on Education last November, is to be released into the Massachusetts House and Senate later this month. The bill plans to crack down on cyber bullies.
Phoebe, who was born in Bedford, England but moved to Co. Clare when she was two, spent most of her life there.
Last summer Phoebe relocated to South Hadley with her mother, Anne O’Brien-Prince, and sisters Lauren, Tessa and Bridget and brother Simon, so she could, according to her family, “experience America and be near her family in Massachusetts.”
She was a freshman in South Hadley High School since September. The young Irish girl found it difficult to settle into school. She engaged in school counseling sessions to adjust to her new settings.
The bullying apparently started when Phoebe began dating a senior football player. Other students didn’t like this and began posting snide comments on her person Facebook page.
According to reports, they also sent her vile text messages and verbally abused her in school and, when the opportunity arose, outside of the classroom.
According to Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe, the bullies would call Phoebe a “slut,” or an “Irish slut.”
It is believed that shortly before her death, Phoebe received another text message saying, “Go kill yourself.”
Even after her death, bullies continued to harass Phoebe in cyberspace. A Facebook page dedicated to her memory and initially flooded with condolences from all over America and Ireland was removed after several vindictive messages were entered on the site.
Phoebe, who was due to go back to Ireland to visit her father in late January, was flown home in a coffin and buried in Fanore, the town she spent most of her youthful life in.
The family plans to set up a memorial scholarship in Phoebe’s name. At this time the family asks that any donations be sent to the Phoebe Prince Scholarship Fund at Peoples Bank, 494 Newton Street, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 01075.