Teen’s suicide prompts a look at bullying

By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / January 24, 2010

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Phoebe Prince’s lilting Irish accent and wide smile made the 15-year-old freshman stand out at South Hadley High School, where she enrolled last fall after her family relocated from a tiny village in the west of Ireland.

Her principal called her smart and charming. A boy invited the new girl to the school’s winter cotillion, a highlight of the school year. But two days before the Jan. 16 dance, Prince died in an apparent suicide, after incessant bullying by classmates at the 700-student high school.

“In a school with that many kids, there are going to be issues,’’ Sergeant Robert Whelihan, a spokesman for the South Hadley Police Department said yesterday. “We are investigating what effects the bullying might have had on the suicide.’’

The bullying included disagreements over teen romances at school, school officials said. And it continued with taunting text messages and harassing postings on Facebook, the popular social networking site.

“The real problem now is the texting stuff and the cyber-bullying,’’ said South Hadley School Superintendent Gus A. Sayer. “Some kids can be very mean towards one another using that medium.’’

Sayer declined to comment on the exact nature of the bullying, but said much of it was done online or by cellphones.

“Apparently the young woman had been subjected to taunting from her classmates, mostly through the Facebook and text messages, but also in person on at least a couple of occasions.’’

In a letter sent to parents, South Hadley High School Principal Daniel Smith said Prince and other students were involved in “public disagreements’’ at the school over dating issues, prompting school officials to discipline students.

“These disagreements centered on relationship/dating issues,’’ Smith wrote in a letter dated Jan. 20. “School personnel immediately intervened . . . and both counseled and provided consequences as the situations required. It is what happened after those incidents were over that is cause for significant concern.’’

Sayer declined to say if any students have been disciplined since Prince died.

The death is being investigated by South Hadley police and the office of Northwest District Attorney Elizabeth D. Scheibel. Scheibel could not be reached for comment yesterday. Prince’s death has unleashed a wave of shock in this small town in Western Massachusetts. Loving remembrances and condolences fill four pages in an online memorial site.

Hundreds attended a candlelight vigil organized by students on the school softball field the day after she died. Letters from parents and residents prompted Smith to announce the creation of an antibullying task force at the high school.

But the first meeting on the task force, scheduled for Tuesday, has been postponed, to allow more time for South Hadley to mourn the loss. “There are still people who are very upset and grieving,’’ Sayer said.

On Wednesday, the South Hadley School Committee will discuss antibullying policies at the town’s four schools. A system-wide review had been underway for 18 months, as instances of bullying crept into schools, officials said.

At the request of the Prince family, there will be no discussion of the girl’s death, said Edward Boiselle, the school committee chairman.

“It will be a discussion of the policy and what programs we have to make kids safe,’’ he said. “At the same time, the family has a right to their privacy.’’

But Prince’s death clearly has added urgency for South Hadley to crack down on bullying, he said. “We’ve already begun a discussion about what things we can do to help prevent things like this from happening,’’ Sayer said.

In his letter to parents, Principal Smith called Prince “smart, charming, and as is the case with many teenagers, complicated . . . We will never know the specific reasons why she chose to take her life.’’

South Hadley police received a call from one of her sisters for medical assistance at 4:40 p.m. on Jan. 14 to the Prince family home. Police, fire and an ambulance responded. “It was a hanging, I believe,’’ said Whelihan, the South Hadley police spokesman.

The state medical examiner has conducted an autopsy but the results are not yet known, he said.

Prince was the daughter of Anne O’Brien Prince and Jeremy Prince. She also leaves her sisters, Lauren, Tessa, Bridget, and a brother, Simon, according to a death notice published in The Republican, a Springfield newspaper. The family could not be reached for comment.

The family moved to Western Massachusetts last year, in part, “so that Phoebe could experience America,’’ they wrote in the death notice stated. “Here she touched many lives with her Irish mannerisms and sense of humor.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at