Kevin Cullen

South Hadley High misses the point, again

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / June 12, 2011

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I have long complained that no adult in authority at South Hadley High School was held accountable after 15-year-old Phoebe Prince committed suicide in January 2010 following her being bullied at school. Only kids got punished.

Well, I stand corrected. Turns out a teacher was punished after all. Her name is Deb Caldieri, and she has been driven from the school as surely as Phoebe was hounded to the grave. Her career and her health have been ruined.

This being South Hadley High, she has suffered all this mostly because she had the temerity to question the way her superiors handled the whole mess.

She didn’t follow the party line at South Hadley High, which from the beginning was to blame Phoebe and excuse the bullies. Phoebe was the outsider, the clueless blow-in from overseas who brought all her troubles on herself. That was the party line.

Caldieri never bought it.

“Phoebe was a very vulnerable child, who should have been protected,’’ Caldieri said. “You weren’t supposed to talk about what happened. I did, and . . . I’ve become a non-person there.’’

That non-person stuff isn’t hyperbole. Caldieri is the Winston Smith of South Hadley High. The cards her students have left at school for her since she went on medical leave last December were never delivered. Her photo is not in the new yearbook. Like the protagonist of George Orwell’s “1984,’’ she’s officially a non-person at South Hadley High. She doesn’t exist anymore.

Of course, you can find the yearbook photo of the teacher who badmouthed Phoebe in front of her students after the suicide. Unlike Deb Caldieri, she’s a teacher in good standing.

Upside down? You betcha.

This all began the day after Phoebe hanged herself. Four girls in Caldieri’s Latin class were wracked with guilt because they felt like they had made light of a boy in class who didn’t have the nerve to ask Phoebe to the school cotillion.

“They wanted this boy to know that they were grieving Phoebe, too,’’ Caldieri said.

The boy was upset and had stayed home from school, so the girls asked if they could go to his house. Caldieri called the boy’s mother who said he could use the boost. Caldieri suffers from multiple sclerosis, so she had one of the girls drive.

The kids cried together and, as Caldieri put it, “showed remarkable compassion toward each other. On a terrible day, they showed such caring.’’

But when Caldieri got back to school, principal Dan Smith called her into his office.

“He said it was the stupidest thing I’d ever done. And then he said, ‘I want you out of my school.’ ’’

You would think Smith would have had better things to do the day after one of his students killed herself. But he set his sights on Caldieri.

Eleven days after Phoebe Prince hanged herself, and while the bullies who tormented her were still walking around like nothing happened, Caldieri received a letter of reprimand from Smith. It cited her for leaving school without following protocol for parental notification and consent.

“While you were admittedly emotionally distraught given the unspeakable tragedy that occurred the day prior, you put four of our students at additional risk and failed to meet basic communication expectations regarding your whereabouts and those of the four students,’’ Smith wrote.

Smith acknowledged that “this incident stands out as a singular event in your solid teaching career at South Hadley High School.’’

But things got worse when Caldieri challenged Smith’s account. She said one of the girls was 18 and could sign herself out. She mistakenly believed that all of the girls had gotten permission from their parents to leave school. She said an assistant principal talked to the 18-year-old as they were leaving, and because he didn’t object she assumed everything was fine.

In the months that followed, it became clear to Caldieri that her superiors were determined to get rid of her. She was cited for posting about Phoebe’s case on Facebook. She was accused of not reporting Phoebe’s bullying, even though Phoebe’s parents credit Caldieri for reporting one of the five teenagers who was eventually charged with harassing Phoebe.

Deb Caldieri, one of the few adults at the school who tried to do something for Phoebe, was accused of not doing enough, a charge that Phoebe’s mother, Anne O’Brien, rejects.

O’Brien said Caldieri was kind to and supportive of her daughter. O’Brien had asked the school to invite Caldieri to Phoebe’s funeral, but Smith told her he made “an executive decision’’ not to invite Caldieri. O’Brien and her husband, Jeremy Prince, were horrified that Caldieri was purposely excluded, because they consider her one of the few adults who stuck up for their daughter.

Last month, in between the court hearings at which five teenagers admitted their roles in bullying Phoebe, O’Brien visited Caldieri at a nursing home.

Caldieri looks so fragile that she might break. Her doctors say her MS has gotten much worse because of stress. She feels used, abused, and discarded.

Smith did not respond to requests for comment. He’s retiring and they gave him a plaque and a big ovation the other night at the School Committee meeting. The School Committee also reinstated a pay raise for Gus Sayer, the school superintendent, which had been invalidated by a judge last month.

So Smith gets his pension, Sayer gets his raise, and Caldieri gets the door.

Orwellian? Kafkaesque? Or just shameful?

Take your pick.

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