A former teacher of bullied student Phoebe Prince says she is being denied an accidental disability pension because she stood up for the 15-year-old Irish girl who killed herself in 2010.
Deb Caldieri, who was a Latin teacher at South Hadley High School, is suffering from multiple sclerosis which she claims was exacerbated by the stress from the threats and intimidation tactics school administrators used on her when she publicly defended Prince and accused the school’s administrators of failing her.
The Boston Globe reports that Caldieri, who was Phoebe’s favorite teacher, was belittled by the school’s former principal, Dan Smith, aided by former school superintendent, Gus Sayer.
Globe columnist, Kevin Cullen, writes that Caldieri was herself bullied:
“The day after Phoebe killed herself, Caldieri responded with compassion, taking four girls to visit a boy who had liked Phoebe and was devastated by her suicide. Smith accused Caldieri of not getting official permission to take the kids out of school. Whether she did or not was open to debate, but that was a smoke screen anyway. Caldieri’s real sin was to challenge the authority of her superiors and suggest that Phoebe wasn’t protected as she should have been. Smith seemed set on getting rid of her, and so he did.
“Other administrators sat in on her classes, challenging her teaching style. Her multiple sclerosis was already wearing on her, and the stress from Smith’s threat to oust her and the intimidation tactics of other administrators triggered seizures. Her depression worsened. She went on medical leave, bullied out of South Hadley High just as Phoebe was.
“Smith and Sayer are quite adamant, saying they never bullied Caldieri and Smith has said he never threatened to get rid of her. They also deny anything they did in the aftermath of Phoebe’s suicide worsened Caldieri’s health. It’s the same refrain they offered after Phoebe died: They did nothing wrong.”
Caldieri, who is in a wheelchair, claims that her condition was made worse by the on-the-job stress, but based on testimony from Sayer and Smith, who are now both retired, and from others in the South Hadley school system, the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement board rejected her request for an accidental disability pension.
Caldieri’s therapist, Davina Miller, filed an extensive report on the progressive decline of Caldieri’s health, linking it to what happened after Phoebe Prince’s suicide.
“Debra’s whole life was changed by this young girl’s tragic suicide and the way she was treated by the school afterwards. She became completely preoccupied by it all, and trying to understand and make sense of it,” Miller wrote. “On October 7, 2010 she told me that she felt too traumatized by Phoebe’s death to recover. I am not in any doubt that Phoebe Prince’s tragic suicide and how Ms. Caldieri was treated subsequently by the South Hadley School Department greatly contributed to her deteriorated mental health. I have had conversations with other health providers of hers both at the time and since about this and this feeling [has] been unanimous.”
The Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement Board’s medical panel agreed, but the board rejected Caldieri’s claim, reports the Boston Globe.
“I’m hanging in there,” said Caldieri, who is appealing the decision, “but I’d be lying if I told you this isn’t so hard, so depressing, to be treated like this.”
She believes the retirement board did not give her a fair hearing. She received the letter denying her claim the next day.
“Their minds seemed made up even before the hearing,” she said. “It felt like a charade. Going through the motions.”
She says she thinks about Phoebe all the time.
“I still grieve for her today,” she said.
Deb Caldieri has learned that what happened to her former student can happen to anyone.
“It’s bullying,” she said, of what is being done to her. “There’s no other word to describe it better. It’s bullying.”