In a case that has attracted international notoriety, six indictments were handed down Friday against the alleged high school bullies who drove South Hadley, Mass., student Phoebe Prince to suicide in Janaury. Three other students were charged as juveniles. The issuance of criminal complaints leaves many followers of the Phoebe Prince case asking why school officials who knew of the bullying, most of which occurred at school, and failed to take action, escaped legal consequences.
A recent immigrant from Ireland, Phoebe Prince was the new freshman in town whose brief dating of a popular senior attracted the notice, and the ire, of a school clique. Unthinkable retribution followed from the popular students labeling Phoebe an Irish slut, to online harrassment, and physical attacks including rape.
County Clare, Ireland, Prince’s home before the fateful move to South Hadley and her final resting place, has taken intense interest in the case, with double the number of readers following the former Fanore resident’s story as the second most popular news story in the region, according to the Boston Herald.
The students indicted Monday are charged with stalking, violation of civil rights with a bodily injury resulting, criminal harassment, and disturbance of a school assembly; two were charged with statutory rape and one with battery. Three of the nine students were charged as juveniles.
Unlike many cyberbullying cases where the harassment occurs outside school, Prince’s tormenters boldly bullied in the open at school where their actions were known to South Hadley High School staff and administration. One incident occurred in the school library, another at an assembly. The rapes, however, occurred off campus. Despite school officials’ awareness that students were routinely bullying Prince, their lack of action did not rise to the level of criminal conduct, according to Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth D. Scheibel.
The Prince case and the case of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, 11, of nearby Springfield who hung himself in April 2009 after repeated bullying have prompted the Massachusetts legislature to consider anti-bullying legislation.
According to the National School Safety Center, bullies rarely stop bullying on their own, instead finding more serious ways to hurt people over time. The Center advises students who are the target of bullying to tell a responsible and caring adult at school what is happening and ask for their help.
In Prince’s case, teachers saw the bullying; her parents reported the bullying to two teachers; and the bullying was common knowledge within the school community, news reports said. Are the adults at South Hadley High School receiving their full measure of accountability for the bullying that led to Prince’s suicide? Bullying adviser Barbara Colorosso told the Early Show that South Hadley Schools consulted her about bullying issues but did not fully follow her advice.
Bullypolice.org cites the Kentucky anti-bullying law as a model for other states. The Kentucky law not only requires the reporting of bullying that rises to the level of a felony, it requires establishing a plan to protect the complainant against retaliation. The notification provisions require school employees who witness bullying to report details to the principal, who is, in turn, required to report the incident to the parents of the students involved and to law enforcement officials.
Delaware received the first A++ rating from Bullypolice for its anti-bullying law, which sets forth a reasonable person standard for requiring school employees to report bullying to the administration. Under the reasonable person standard, if school staff has reliable information that would cause a reasonable person to suspect that a person is a target of bullying, the staff must report the suspicion to the school administration.
Massachusetts ranked 27 among the states for bullying, according to a survey by Bullypolice. The higher the ranking, the less bullying is a problem in the state.
The National Youth Violence Prevention Center notes that 60 percent of people who bully in grades 6-9 acquire at least one criminal conviction by age 24.