Kevin Cullen

Admission of failure

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / December 14, 2010

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One of the competing narratives of the prosecution of six teenagers for the persecution of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old schoolgirl who killed herself in South Hadley in January, is that the children are being punished while the adults skate.

After all, six of Phoebe’s schoolmates face charges that could, technically if not very likely, land them in jail, while a host of adults who worked at the school and failed Phoebe miserably escaped prosecution.

Gus Sayer, the South Hadley school superintendent, has always maintained that no one employed by the School Department did anything wrong regarding Phoebe and the bullying she faced.

But that party line looks a lot harder to defend in the face of two developments that have not, before today, made it into the public realm.

First, last month the South Hadley public schools quietly settled a discrimination case brought by Phoebe’s parents, Jeremy Prince and Anne O’Brien. Phoebe’s parents filed the complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in July, naming the school system; Sayer; South Hadley High’s principal, Dan Smith; and assistant principal William Evans. The complaint, citing a chapter in state law, accused the school and those officials of failing to protect her from discrimination that amounted to sexual harassment.

Secondly, federal prosecutors have been just as quietly investigating possible wrongdoing by school officials in handling the bullying of Phoebe and especially actions after her suicide. According to officials familiar with that investigation, one of the allegations federal prosecutors are reviewing is that handwritten notes about Phoebe and the harassment she faced at school were destroyed after her suicide.

The MCAD complaint was dismissed Nov. 7, after the Prince family’s lawyer, Robert Leonard, filed paperwork saying he had “reached a satisfactory settlement’’ with those named in the complaint. Leonard declined to discuss the terms of the settlement yesterday. Others described it as involving a monetary sum. A friend of Phoebe’s parents said they were not interested in money but in obtaining a finding that school authorities bear some responsibility for what happened to Phoebe.

As for the interest of federal authorities, Leonard said he could not discuss particulars, but did confirm the existence of the investigation.

It may turn out that the feds conclude, as Northwestern District Attorney Betsy Scheibel did, that although school officials did not do all they could to help Phoebe, their conduct did not rise to the level of a crime.

But that is beside the point. The settlement of the discrimination complaint is a tacit, if not explicit, admission that the adults at the high school who were supposed to be looking after Phoebe did not do everything they could.

Sayer’s contention that teachers and administrators did not know the scope and extent of the bullying directed at Phoebe until it was too late was never supported by anecdotal evidence, not to mention witness statements given to investigators from Scheibel’s office.

Sayer said he could not comment on the settlement or the investigation and referred me to Carole Lynch, the lawyer who represents the South Hadley schools. Lynch did not return a call or an e-mail.

The criminal cases against the six teenagers are slowly but surely moving ahead. There could be pleas. There could be trials. And there is still a buzz, particularly among lawyers, that the incoming district attorney, David Sullivan, is inclined to drop the whole thing.

Sullivan will replace Scheibel next month. He told me he will review the case file before assigning it to a prosecutor.

Elizabeth Dunphy Farris, the lead prosecutor in the case, is leaving the office. But she has offered to prosecute the case, for free, as a special prosecutor.

That is a bargain: she has never lost a jury trial in superior court.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at