Slate Reporter Says Phoebe Prince's Death By Bullying Case More Complex Than It Seems

Filed under: In The News

What caused Phoebe Prince to end her own life? Credit: Facebook

A clique of evil teenagers bullies the new kid in school to death.

What a tragedy. What a story.

For all the shades of gray in the world, here was a black-and-white tale of good versus evil -- complete with villains we loathe from our childhoods and dread as our own kids enter adolescence.

But was Phoebe Prince really hounded to death at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts?

Emily Bazelon, an editor at Slate, paints a very different picture as she covers the trail of six students charged in connection with Phoebe's suicide on Jan. 14.

"It's more complicated than the idea of a predatory pack of kids descending on her," Bazelon said this morning on the Today show.

Bazelon reports that Phoebe was already severely depressed when she moved to South Hadley from County Clare, Ireland, last year. She missed her absent father. She engaged in self-mutilation. She even attempted suicide once before.

According to Bazelon's fact-finding mission, the first attempt was prompted by Phoebe's breakup with a senior (now facing charges of statutory rape as well as civil rights violations in the wake of her death). And the bullying that followed may not have been systematic or orchestrated as earlier news reports suggest. Reportedly, one alleged bully stopped when confronted by school administrators.

Several students said they considered the situation with Phoebe "normal girl drama."

"My investigation into the events that gave rise to Phoebe's death, based on extensive interviews and review of law enforcement records, reveals the uncomfortable fact that Phoebe helped set in motion the conflicts with other students that ended in them turning on her," Bazelon writes on Slate.

"Her death was tragic, and she shouldn't have been bullied. But she was deeply troubled long before she ever met the six defendants," she adds. "And her own behavior made other students understandably upset."

Bazelon's coverage suggests that six students face charges ranging from criminal harassment and stalking to civil rights violations, because South Hadley District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel has made bullying a cause celebre in her long history of seeking excessive punishments. To wit, Scheibel slapped a 17-year-old kid with Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, with charges carrying a maximum 60-year sentence for making YouTube videos of himself lighting explosives in a field. He was later acquitted.

"Scheibel and her staff stepped in because they thought South Hadley High mishandled the lead-up to and the aftermath of Phoebe's death," writes Bazelon. "Does that amount to penalizing teenagers because the adults failed to do so?"

If so, the penalty could be up to 10 years in prison.

Bazelon adds that Phoebe's mother told school officials that her daughter was a victim of bullying in Ireland and was on antidepressant medication. Even after the first suicide attempt, however, officials allegedly did nothing to help the teenager.

While Bazelon's analysis doesn't defend the bullies, it seems to wave an angry finger at schools and their apparent problems in identifying bullies and helping kids at risk.

"There is no question that some of the teenagers facing criminal charges treated Phoebe cruelly," Bazelon writes. "But not all of them did. And it's hard to see how any of the kids going to trial this fall ever could have anticipated the consequences of their actions, for Phoebe or for themselves."

"Should we send teenagers to prison for being nasty to one another?" she asks. "Is it really fair to lay the burden of Phoebe's suicide on these kids?"

So far, they've been kicked out of school, publicly targeted and blamed for a girl's suicide. When the pretrial hearings for these kids begin in September, will the punishment fit the crime?

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.