Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Six South Hadley High School students will be arraigned this week in connection with the suicide of 15-year-old freshman Phoebe Prince.
Six South Hadley High School students will be arraigned this week in connection with the suicide of 15-year-old freshman Phoebe Prince. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Three classmates of a 15-year-old high school freshman who committed suicide in January are scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday for behavior prosecutors believe led to Phoebe Prince's death; another three will be arraigned Thursday.
Prince was found dead in January, hanging in the stairwell leading up to her family's second floor apartment in South Hadley, Mass.
The six teenagers were indicted last week — three as adults, three as juveniles — for what District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel called a relentless campaign of bullying that made Prince's last days unbearable.
"It appears that Phoebe's death on Jan. 14 followed a torturous day for her, in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse," Scheibel said at a news conference at the time.
Prince and her family had recently moved to the U.S. from Ireland. Investigators found that the high school freshman had been the target of taunts and harassment at South Hadley High School for about three months, apparently in response to romantic relationships she had with two boys. The defendants had reportedly called Prince an "Irish slut," pelted her with a soda can, posted hurtful items online and yelled at her on school grounds.
"Their conduct far exceeded the limits of normal teenage relationship-related quarrels," Scheibel said.
The four girls and two boys face charges that include violation of civil rights with bodily injury resulting, criminal harassment, stalking and statutory rape. School administrators had already suspended some of those students after Prince's death, and the rest have been removed since the indictments. But the school district has been under scrutiny for its response to the bullying.
Scheibel, who did not charge administrators with any crime, asserts that faculty and staff were aware of the harassment for some time, and that Prince's parents had asked the school for help before her death. South Hadley Superintendent Gus Sayer disputes those claims. He says the principal first learned of the bullying one week before Prince's death.
"The first report he got on Jan. 7, he acted very swiftly with the students that were involved," Sayer said. "That appeared to put an end to their involvement in any bullying. The unfortunate thing was that there was a second group of students who were also bullying Phoebe, and he didn't get any reports about their involvement until after her death."
Sayer stresses that most mean things kids do to one another happen out of the earshot of adults. That, however, hasn't stopped many in the wider community from blaming Prince's death on the school. Sayer and his staff have received hundreds of angry e-mails and letters.
"Most are expletives, condemning people — I should burn in hell," Sayer said. "If we're going to talk about the issue of bullying, this is the kind of behavior that contributes to it."
This week, the Massachusetts Legislature is finalizing a new anti-bullying law — one that was first put in motion a year ago after an 11-year-old who was bullied in a nearby town committed suicide; 41 other states already have bullying laws on the books.
The Massachusetts bill would require schools to investigate reports of bullying, including off school grounds, but it would not make bullying a criminal act. Stalking and harassment are already against law.
The six students accused of harassing Prince have yet to go on the record with their side of the story; once they're arraigned this week, they'll have their chance.