US campaigners take on high-school bullies after Irish girl is driven to despair

Students face charges after newly arrived 15-year-old became victim of abuse
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The Independent US

Whatever the Prince family expected for their daughter Phoebe when they moved to America from a village in the west of Ireland, it cannot have been what eventually transpired. Phoebe only joined her Massachusetts school last autumn. Within six months, she had hanged herself in a clothes cupboard, the victim of a "relentless" bullying campaign.

In the aftermath of her death, South Hadley High School has been forced to confront terrible questions about the way some of its children treated the newcomer in their midst. But this week, criminal charges have been filed against nine of the teenagers who made her life so miserable. Now that the charges have been announced, Phoebe's parents and other observers have been asking another question: what about the teachers who failed to protect her?

The case, which has sent waves of dismay across the entire state and even nationally, centres on the misery suffered by Phoebe Prince, who was just 15 years old when she took her own life on 14 January, after what a prosecutor said had been months of bullying and taunting on school grounds, all arising, apparently, from her having dared briefly to date a school football player who was popular with other female students.

The athlete and another male student face charges of statutory rape in addition to the charges filed against four female students that range from assault, violation of civil rights resulting in injury and criminal harassment to disturbance of a school assembly and stalking. Three other younger girls face juvenile charges. The abuse, which included the declaration that the girl was an "Irish slut", were made both in person and in text messages on Facebook.

Massachusetts' Governor, Deval Patrick, said the charges, which could bring heavy sentences, are "a message that there will be consequences for this kind of behaviour". He added: "It's a terrible tragedy and all of us want to see consequences."

The death of Phoebe, who grew up in County Clare, Ireland, but was born in Bedford, England, was among cases that spurred the state legislature in Boston to pass new anti-bullying laws earlier this month.

The District Attorney who announced the charges, Betsey Scheibel, said Phoebe's death "followed a torturous day for her in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse". Her tormentors threw a can at her as she walked home. Ms Prince was later found hanging in a cupboard by her sister wearing the clothes she had worn to school.

The tormenting of the girl lasted for months, however, almost from her first day at the school in South Hadley, a town in western Massachusetts where her family had settled after leaving Ireland last September. "The investigation revealed relentless activities directed toward Phoebe to make it impossible for her to stay at school. The bullying for her was intolerable," the DA said.

While Ms Scheibel said that four students and two members of the teaching staff had tried at times to intervene to protect Ms Prince, "the actions or inactions of some adults at the school are troublesome". These, she added, nonetheless did not rise in her view to the level of criminal behaviour.

"A lack of understanding of harassment associated with teen dating relationships seems to have been prevalent at South Hadley High School," said Ms Scheibel. "That, in turn, brought an inconsistent interpretation in enforcement in the school's code of conduct when incidents were observed and reported."

Not everyone is satisfied that the adults should be let off while nine students are facing charges, however, including one state legislator who is calling for a new inquiry into the failures within the school common room. "I would hope the South Hadley school system would fully investigate and determine who knew what and when," said John W Scibak, a Democrat who represents the town.

"They should have put a stop to it," said Mitch Brouillard, who said that his own daughter had been attacked after speaking out against bullies at her school. He added that he was "appalled" that no action was being taken against staff members.

The DA said that the girl's mother had spoken to "at least two staff members" about the bullying and had noted that the bullying of her daughter was "common knowledge" at the school.

"What Scheibel had to say was as much an indictment of a look-the-other-way, kids-will-be-kids culture that permeated South Hadley High," Kevin Cullen, a columnist with the Boston Globe, wrote yesterday. "Whatever we expect students to do in these situations, there were adults at the high school who didn't intervene."

"The Mean Girls called Phoebe an Irish slut," wrote Mr Cullen. "They followed her. She had no quarter. They made it torture for her to come to school every day because the insults and the intimidation were, as Scheibel put it, relentless."

For its part, the school said it would not make any statements on the filing of the charges against its students until later this week or maybe next week when it had reviewed the evidence collected by Ms Scheibel. Some among the defendants have been disciplined by the school and are not currently attending classes, officials said.

An anti-bullying consultant, Barbara Coloroso, told CBS News yesterday that she had advised the school on ways to identify and stamp out cases of harassment by students on fellow students long before the suicide of Phoebe Prince and that her counsel had not been properly followed up. "This is a wake-up call," she said.

For those who knew Phoebe, though, it comes too late. Not everyone at her new school loathed her: Sergio Loubriel, 14, told the Boston Herald that he had asked her to a winter dance with him, and regretted that he had never told her that he had a crush on her.

"I wish I could have stopped it," he said. "I wish I could have talked to her when she got home."