It's the town where dreams could become a reality. I always imagined some day making my fortune in America and moving to a small town with white picket fences, quaint restaurants, adorable stores and well-maintained parks just like this one.
As I drove into South Hadley, Massachusetts last Friday the sun shone brightly overhead, making the town from the offset sparkle with hope and beauty.
For a minute I was lost in the white washed houses, oversized gardens and expensive cars parked out front. As I drove slowly up Newton Street I opened the car window and turned off the radio. The air was fresh and I could hear the birds singing overhead as I crawled up the road.
And suddenly, as I glanced to my right, a dark cloud suddenly draped over my brief notions of South Hadley.
There it was; the school that an Irish girl, just like me, but half my age, was bullied relentlessly before she took her own life on January 14.
I pulled slowly into the school car park. It was early morning and the only sign of life was coming from the football field.
South Hadley High School where Phoebe Prince spent the final hours of her life being called horrific names such as “Irish slut” and “whore” was on spring recess but activities on the football pitch brought life to the place.
As I sat there for a few minutes trying to imagine what went on through those walls that caused Phoebe to hang herself, I became almost nauseated. I was lost in my emotions, anger, upset and confusion. The sound of car doors closing and engines roaring to my right caught my attention.
A group of girls, no more than 16 or 17 had finished up what appeared to be hockey practice and were going their separate ways, in top of the range SUVs. I felt slightly intimated by their confidence, their big cars and loud personalities.
After the crowd thinned out I approached two young women. Albeit friendly, when I told them who I was and what I wanted (their opinions on what happened to Phoebe) they cut me off and said, “We’ve been told not to talk to any media,” said a taller girl, although not divulging who told her to remain mum.
I’d hit a dead end before I started.
I crawled back out onto the main road and was in front of Phoebe’s home, the home she shared with her family after moving from Ireland last September within minutes.
The house, brightly painted white with elegant purple shutters, is also on Newton Street. It’s a few hundred yards from the high school.
It struck me that Phoebe hadn’t far to walk home from school, yet the day she died she was taunted on that very road by some of her school peers. They even went as far as throwing an energy drink at her.
It hurt to the core as I saw in my mind the beautiful Irish teenager walk through the front door and up the stairs to her death.
After a short prayer for her and her family I continued into the main strip in South Hadley. An impressive little village adorned with stores, restaurants and offices.
I had lunch with a mother and daughter teams who have been very vocal on the responsibility the school should be taking in Phoebe’s bullying and were eager to share their opinions with the Irish Voice.
Erica Laughlin, 39, and her mother, Susan Clow, are beyond angry at the way school authorities have handled themselves in dealing with Phoebe’s death.
Laughlin, a parent of four children, lives in South Hadley. However, her children attend school in the next town over.
There is a chance that next year her kids will be expected to attend South Hadley High School.
“This will not happen,” said Laughlin.
“If it comes to that I’m ready to home school my kids,” she said.
“There is no way I’m going to send them to South Hadley High.”
Clow said South Hadley has a “culture of bullying.
“It’s always been like this and people have turned a blind eye. If you don’t fit in or wear a certain type of clothes then you are looked down on and bullied,” said Clow.
Laughlin has attended all the school committee meetings to show solidarity for the few people in the town that are standing up to the South Hadley school authorities.
“I’ve been at meetings where several people stood up and spoke about the bullying of their own child,” said Laughlin.
“But nothing has been done- Gus Sayer (schools superintendent) had neglected to do anything. It’s a disgrace.”
Clow said she would like to see the “school stand up” and taking responsibility.
“It would be nice to see adults in the school, morally coming forward and standing beside the kids who are being charged.”
Both mother and daughter agree that although it’s imperative the six students charged in relation to Phoebe’s bullying should be punished they feel the South Hadley school authorities are hanging them out to dry.
“Their life is being ruined and the school is doing nothing to take responsibility,” she said.
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.
Nothing happened. The bullying continued until this woman took matters into her own hands and approached the parents of the bullies themselves.
“Even at that, my son still got abused both physically and verbally,” she said.
After a few more encounters with people of the same minds as Castro and Ambrose I knew it was time to leave South Hadley.
I had enough.
I drove back out of town, past Phoebe’s old home and past the school where nightmares were created with a sick feeling in my stomach.
Will the school authorities ever stand up and take responsibility?
Well if the likes of O’Brien keeps the fight up – and I sincerely hope he does- then it’s a possibility.
Watch this space.
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