Kevin Cullen

A mother’s farewell, forbidding vengeance

Phoebe Prince, her daughter, lost, she shares a shattered heart

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / May 15, 2011

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Anne O’Brien flew back to Ireland the other day, hoping she had found the peace that would let her bury her daughter’s ashes, knowing she will never bury what happened in America.

Before she left, she sat down for her first and what she said would be her only interview. As much as she wants the world to know her daughter Phoebe was a beautiful, intelligent, sensitive girl, she wants the world to go away.

In January 2010, after 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself, she became an unwilling icon, the poster child for bullied kids. But Anne O’Brien never agreed to all the attention.

She wanted the bullies who tormented Phoebe held accountable, to apologize. She never wanted them to go to jail.

“Jail is a waste of time,’’ she said.

She never wanted them or their families to be subjected to the same kind of invective, via the Internet, that was hurled into Phoebe’s face in the hallways of South Hadley High School.

Two of the five charged with bullying Phoebe, Kayla Narey and Ashley Longe, apologized.

“It was all we ever wanted,’’ O’Brien said. “For these kids to take ownership of what they did, and to show genuine remorse. They either get it, or they don’t. Kayla and Ashley get it.’’

She is less forgiving of some teachers and administrators at South Hadley High.

“The school personnel will never be held accountable,’’ she said. “It’s unfair.’’

She said teachers and administrators who should have protected Phoebe instead helped isolate her, because they bought into the mentality that Phoebe somehow brought this on herself by dating the wrong boys. She’s heard stories that some teachers badmouthed Phoebe in death, that one teacher suggested Phoebe “slept with the entire football team.’’

In fact, Phoebe slept with one football player, Sean Mulveyhill, the captain, and when he dumped her, he turned on her, and she took an overdose of Seroquel.

“She told me as soon as she did,’’ O’Brien said.

Phoebe came out of the hospital and was set upon by kids, and ignored by some adults in the school who knew of her vulnerability.

O’Brien said the school’s decision to go ahead with its annual cotillion two days after Phoebe hanged herself was “cold and callous.’’ She asks if the same decision would have been made if a child who had grown up in the town had committed suicide after being bullied in school.

She said school officials released Phoebe’s name even before Jeremy Prince, her husband and Phoebe’s father, had been able to contact his two grown children.

She will live with regret, because it was her decision to bring Phoebe and her daughter Lauren to South Hadley, to have a year break from Ireland. Phoebe had had problems at her school in Ireland.

“I just thought Phoebe needed a break. She was in a school with 175 kids, grades 7 to 12,’’ she said. “But I also thought it would be good for her and Lauren.’’

When Phoebe enrolled, O’Brien filled out paperwork for the school indicating that Phoebe was being treated for depression. And yet, she said, the first time Phoebe heard from an adjustment counselor at the school was in mid-November 2009, nearly three months after classes started.

“Phoebe was made to feel she had to deal with things on her own. She didn’t feel safe, or supported. I knew she was being bullied. But I didn’t see this coming. She saw her therapist the night before, and the therapist didn’t see this coming.

“If the school had done what it should have done, the bullying wouldn’t have gotten that bad. There would not have been an escalation. Phoebe wouldn’t have felt so cornered.’’

South Hadley School Superintendent Gus Sayer maintains no one in the schools did anything wrong. He did not respond to a request for comment.

“The way the school behaved after Phoebe died reflected the way they behaved before Phoebe died. They blamed her,’’ O’Brien said. “They didn’t protect her while she was alive, and after she died they blamed her for bringing it on herself.

“As a teacher, I found it quite shocking. I think there’s a systemic problem at South Hadley, a systemic failing of my daughter and of other children. I don’t think there will be true healing or change until they have a change in the very top of the administration, until they get rid of Gus Sayer, until they get rid of the school committee that supports him.’’

Robert Leonard, O’Brien’s attorney in Springfield, said his office has fielded many offers from book publishers and movie producers.

“The family is not interested,’’ he said.

That hasn’t stopped others from shopping books and film rights. O’Brien is appalled.

“The idea that people are going to make money off this is making me demented,’’ she said. “Phoebe has become this commodity.’’

She has received letters of comfort and support from all over the world. While touched by the kindness of strangers, she was disturbed by the media frenzy.

“We’d get letters from people who lost their children. . . . A jeweler in Chicago wrote me, saying how even a year after he couldn’t go to his son’s grave. I kept thinking, why is my kid getting all this attention and what about the people whose kids don’t get attention? Those children are no less deserving of sympathy.

“At some point you’ve got to let go. I don’t want to see movies made. I don’t want to see an episode of ‘Law and Order.’ I don’t want to read books. That’s why we haven’t said anything.’’

Phoebe’s legacy, she hopes, is that kids will be less cruel to each other, that parents have necessary conversations with their kids, that teachers and administrators take bullying more seriously and not slough it off as normal teenage melodrama.

She likes the idea of memorials that invoke Phoebe’s spirit, not her name. Like the kids in California who sent her letters about starting an antibullying program in Phoebe’s memory. Or the man in Toledo who started a scholarship because of Phoebe. There is a scholarship in Phoebe’s memory for poor, inner-city kids at the Van Sickle Middle School in Springfield, where O’Brien taught.

On Thursday, before she boarded her flight, O’Brien met with the two women who stood by her throughout it all: Betsy Scheibel, the former district attorney who brought the charges, and Beth Dunphy Farris, the original lead prosecutor in the case. Dunphy Farris stood next to O’Brien as she gave her victim impact statements in court. On Thursday, the three women hugged and cried, and O’Brien thanked them for sticking up for Phoebe, and for sticking up for her.

And then she went home, to what was left of her family, to a house in County Clare that will never be the same.

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