Kevin Cullen

It’s a year later, and not much has changed

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / January 16, 2011

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It was a year ago, on Friday, that 15-year-old Phoebe Prince decided she could take no more. She wrapped around her neck the scarf she’d given her little sister for Christmas and hanged herself.

Phoebe’s suicide, after months of bullying at school, along with the suicide in Springfield a year earlier of 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover, persuaded the Legislature to pass a law that makes it mandatory for school officials to be trained in how to spot and confront bullying, and to report it.

But you have to wonder, can you really mandate a change in school culture?

You would think, of all places, the culture would have changed most in South Hadley High School. After all, that is where Phoebe Prince was hounded to the grave, where teachers and administrators insist to this day that they didn’t see the problem until it was too late. It is where six teenagers who went to school there are awaiting trial, five of them accused of engaging in a pattern of persecution that was apparent to many students but, incredibly, no one in authority.

In South Hadley, there have been committees formed, vigils held — including one Friday night — experts brought in, programs developed. Everybody’s saying the right thing. But what about doing the right thing?

“I don’t think anything has changed at South Hadley High School,’’ Jennifer Kalvinek said.

Kalvinek’s daughter, Payton Spinney, a 16-year-old sophomore at South Hadley High, has Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder that affects the ability to communicate and socialize. Kids with Asperger’s are often unusually bright, as is Payton, but they’re different, socially awkward, and they often attract the stares or mean words of peers.

Kalvinek said it’s beyond teasing. Her daughter is being bullied.

“A boy threw breadsticks at her in the cafeteria,’’ Kalvinek said. “A lot of people witnessed this. Nothing was done.’’

She said her daughter has been called so many names so many times that she stopped reporting it, because nothing was done.

“It’s not just students,’’ Kalvinek said. “Teachers are encouraging this by their actions or inactions. If a kid is somewhat different, like Payton, it’s hands off.’’

Kalvinek said the response in South Hadley is in marked contrast to the town of Ware, where Payton went to school until two years ago.

“There was a guidance counselor in Ware who checked in with Payton every day,’’ Kalvinek said. “They were on top of it.’’

Payton says she endures name-calling and bullying daily. “I’ve been called bitch, Satan, everything,’’ she said. “People laugh at me. A boy threatened to beat me up. Teachers put me down and say things about me in front of other students.’’

Kalvinek said her daughter told her last year how some students harassed Phoebe. Kalvinek said she called the school, four times, two months before Phoebe’s suicide, to report what her daughter was saying about the bullying of Phoebe.

“Every time I called, they said they were on top of it,’’ Kalvinek said. “Well, they weren’t on top of it with Phoebe, and they’re not on top of it with my daughter.’’

Dan Smith, the South Hadley High principal, said he could not speak to me about Payton, citing privacy laws. He referred me to Gus Sayer, the South Hadley school superintendent. Sayer declined to talk, again, citing privacy concerns.

But Kalvinek and her daughter don’t want privacy. They want people to know and talk about this. They want someone to explain why Payton’s tormentors walk the halls unbowed, why Payton and her mother are being made to feel as if they’re the troublemakers.

“I think going public is the only way we’re going to get the help my daughter deserves,’’ Kalvinek said. “My daughter was getting A’s. Now she’s getting F’s.’’

A state education advocate was so concerned about Payton’s decline, and the inability of school officials to respond to it, that she called Darby O’Brien, one of the whistle-blowers in the Prince case. O’Brien called Sayer, got nowhere, then called Abigail Williams, a Worcester lawyer.

“When Payton and her mother came to see me, I was sure I was going to find out this was a misunderstanding,’’ Williams said. “Given what happened to Phoebe Prince, I assumed Payton was exactly the type of student the school would focus on so that she could get a safe and appropriate education. But her [educational] plan is not being followed. It hasn’t been implemented. And Payton has been subjected to constant abuse and bullying.’’

On Friday, Payton was sent home early. Her mother found her walking the street, an eerie route similar to the one Phoebe took home on the last day of her life.

Williams says Phoebe and Payton share one important characteristic.

“They’re outsiders,’’ she said. “Phoebe came here from Ireland. Payton came here from another town. If you’re not one of the in crowd, this is what you get.’’

There are some people ready to blame the victim. Phoebe Prince, they’ll tell you, brought on a lot of her own problems. No doubt, there will be some who say the same thing about Payton Spinney.

But bullying is about power, and in both of these cases the kids who were bullied did not have the power. It is those around them, armed with meanness or apathy, who hold the power.

It is easy to call a meeting. Even easier to bring in an expert. It is much harder to navigate the halls full of raging hormones and immature psyches, where kids think nothing of being cruel to the weak and unpopular, whose only hope is that adults have more sense than their peers.

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