School Defends Actions in Phoebe Prince Bullying Suicide

| by Mark Berman Opposing Views

The superintendent of schools -- where Phoebe Prince was bullied to the point where she killed herself -- is defending the actions of school officials. Many critics say they didn't do enough to help save Phoebe's life.

South Hadley, Massachusetts Schools Superintendent Gus Sayer, in his first extensive comments since criminal charges were brought against nine students, rebutted prosecutors’ assertions that staff and administrators should have done more to intervene. He said school officials became aware of the bullying of Prince only a week before the 15-year-old Irish immigrant hanged herself.

“That’s the first we learned of it, and we took very strong action,’’ Sayer told the Boston Globe. “We don’t have knowledge of any bullying or other incidents before that. No one turned their back on this. I think we did everything we could. If I thought I had done something wrong, I would resign. But I think we did our best.’’

Sayer’s remarks stand in sharp contrast to assertions by District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, who on Monday said a lengthy investigation concluded that the harassment of Prince was “common knowledge’’ among students, and that certain staff members and administrators were also aware of the bullying. She said their inaction, while not criminal, was “troublesome.’’

Sayer said those findings “did not jibe’’ with the internal investigation conducted by the school’s principal after Prince’s death. “Based on our investigation, that wasn’t the case,’’ he said. “He followed up every lead, but we didn’t get any other reports.’’

Scheibel took issue with Sayer’s comments.

“He is under fire and lashing out,’’ she said. “He does not have access to investigative material, so I don’t know how or why he can say what he said to the Globe. He doesn’t know what evidence we have.’’

Sayer said staff members would have intervened more forcefully had they known the extent of Prince’s troubles. “It’s highly unlikely that people wouldn’t have taken action to help her,’’ he said. “If this were something that were widely known, or even known by just a few people, people would have stepped in. We would not let people get harmed.’’

Sayer admits that about a week before Prince committed suicide, two incidents came to the attention of officials. In one case, a faculty member overheard a group of students threatening Prince, who was not present. In the second, a student walked into a classroom where Prince was, called her an “Irish slut,’’ and quickly departed.

Both incidents were immediately reported to the principal, Sayer said, and the students were “appropriately punished.’’

“That’s the only thing that was reported to faculty,’’ he said. “I think the principal did everything he could.’’

Sayer also disputed Scheibel’s assertion that Prince’s mother had spoken with at least two staff members about the harassment. He said her mother had met with a school nurse and a guidance counselor, but said bullying was not discussed.

Sayer called students’ behavior toward Prince “outrageous’’ but said he was surprised to learn that Scheibel drew such a strong connection between the bullying and Prince’s suicide.

“People have assumed the bullying caused her death,’’ he said. “But we don’t know why she took her own life. We think there were probably a number of possible causes.’’