Sunday, April 4, 2010

The extraordinarily shocking and shockingly ordinary death of Phoebe Prince

By Jennifer O’Connell

There can be few places on Earth more spectacular, or more isolated, than Fanore in West Clare. Buffeted between the vast limestone expanse of the Burren on one side and the restless Atlantic on the other, Fanore boasts a shop, a single pub and a post office. 

Its surroundings - the beach, the cliffs, the Viking graveyard, the Burren - are its chief amenity. Phoebe Prince spent 12 of her 15 tragically-abbreviated years in this landscape.

However, to really know loneliness she had to travel to South Hadley in Massachusetts, with its population of almost 20,000 people, its non-existent crime rate, and its tidy clapboard houses behind miles of white picket fences.

It’s hard to imagine what Phoebe and her family - she is one of five siblings, but only her mother Anne and two of the family's children went to America - made of the resolutely white, lower middle-class town when they arrived there last year, with its wide, sweeping roads, and its low, brown brick school building, where SUVs compete for parking spaces in the yard outside.

It’s easier to guess what their first impression might have been of their handsome clapboard house on Newton Street, with its blue shutters and covered, raised verandah: it looks like something straight out of a children’s story book.

Whatever they thought, they could not have imagined that, just five months later, they would find Phoebe’s body hanging lifeless from a rope in its stairwell.

The story of what happened to Phoebe Prince, the beautiful girl with the big sad eyes and pixie face - a girl, her family would say in her obituary, gifted with ‘‘a sharp, creative brain’’ and ‘‘impressive artistic talent’’ - is at once extraordinarily shocking, and shockingly ordinary.

Phoebe’s Irishness hardly marked her out as unusual in a town where 16 per cent of the population are of Irish descent - a demographic blip borne out by the names of her alleged tormentors, at least a couple of which might have been plucked from the pages of an Eircom phone book.

Yet her new classmates seem to have at first regarded her as something of an exotic when she arrived in their midst at the beginning of the autumn term last year.

Phoebe, a freshman, reportedly had a short relationship with a 17-year-old senior who also happened to be a football player.

This was her first - perhaps her only - mistake.

When she and Sean Mulveyhill - who has been charged with statutory rape, violation of civil rights resulting in bodily injury, criminal harassment and disturbance of a school assembly - broke up, a group calling themselves the Mean Girls - effectively the self-appointed guardians of the school’s rigid caste system - decided, as Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe would later put it: ‘‘then and there, that Phoebe didn’t know her place and that Phoebe would pay."

So began a three-month campaign of mental and sometimes physical torture.

On January 14 this year, Phoebe was walking home from school at the end of another miserable day, when one of the so-called Mean Girls drove past in a car, and hurled an energy drink can at Phoebe.

Phoebe continued her journey home, walked in the front door of her house, closed the door behind her, and shortly afterwards hanged herself in the stairwell. She was discovered there by her 12-year-old sister.

You might imagine that her tormentors would have been shocked into remorse, or at least into silence.

Instead, they continued to hound her even after death, posting abusive messages on her Facebook page.

Kevin Cullen recounts how, when one TV station sent a crew to South Hadley High to interview pupils, one girl spoke out on camera about the bullying that was endemic in the school. ‘‘As soon as the TV crew was out of sight, one of the Mean Girls came up and slammed the girl who had been interviewed against a locker and punched her in the head," Cullen says.

Last week, nine students were charged in connection with Phoebe’s death. The charges ranged from criminal harassment and civil rights violations, to stalking and statutory rape.

But the most shocking thing about the Phoebe Prince case is how ordinary her experience was.

Bullying has always been around. I was bullied. I’m sure you were bullied. Knowingly or otherwise, some of us have bullied others ourselves.

What has changed is the nature of the bullying and the way we react to it. Phoebe Prince’s teachers didn’t take any action to protect her, because - hamstrung by the threat of legal action or the fear of repercussions from irate parents - they didn’t feel they could.

The District Attorney responsible for the investigation said the harassment of Phoebe had been ‘‘common knowledge’’ among the teachers and students, and that Phoebe’s mother, Anne, had spoken to two of her teachers about it.

On the last day of her life, district attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said Phoebe was openly hounded while she studied in the library at lunchtime, as one of her teachers watched - a claim which has been denied by the school.

The threat of litigation is not the only factor involved. The nature of parenting has changed too - a fact painfully underlined by the reactions of some of the parents of the alleged tormentors of Phoebe Prince.

‘‘My daughter never fought with her or said, ‘Go harm yourself,’ or ‘I hate you’," said one of the mothers in defence of the daughter who has been charged with stalking and violation of civil rights resulting in bodily injury.

The other thing that has changed is technology, which has made it easier to bully, and harder to detect.

In a recent study in America, one in four kids said they had been the victim of old-fashioned, in-your-face bullying; while 60 per cent experienced bullying by text message or on the internet. More worrying again, while just one in 20 admitted to being a playground bully, more than one in four said they were guilty of cyber bullying.

Irish research carried out in Trinity College is even more sobering: 30 per cent of students have been bullied, while one in four admits to having bullied someone.

In January, Phoebe Prince finally returned to Co Clare. Her parents wanted to ensure the Atlantic ocean lay between her and her tormentors; that in death she would find the peace she hadn’t known for the last months of her life.


This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on April 4, 2010


  1. I remembered the misery of enduring bullying when I heard of this case. How you would just wish yourself outside of yourself for the 6 hours you were in school. And thankfully in 1978 that was it as your parents' wouldn't tolerate you being harassed by landline in the middle of the kitchen.

    The only thing that could come out of this absolute nightmare that will not end for her parents for a long time yet, is the thought that the threat of actual prosecution, might stop others being tormented to death.