The Phoebe Prince case: Punishable crimes in the adult world?

My column for the AJC education page this week was about the Phoebe Prince bullying case. (I did not post it here as we had discussed the issues already.) But among my statements in the column:

As sympathetic as I am to Phoebe’s family in their quest for justice, it’s hard to know what was really happening in the young girl’s life. It’s often difficult to assess what family dynamics and personal issues play a role in a suicide.

Was Phoebe’s depression due solely to her cruel treatment at school or were other issues involved, such as the family’s recent move to the United States from Ireland? Was Phoebe homesick for Ireland and her friends?

None of these conditions would excuse the bullying, but they would help us understand what also might have been going on in Phoebe’s life.

I debated this issue with several readers last week, almost all of whom disagree with me. Among them is John E. Morris, a social sciences doctoral student.

“A student who is abused by his fellow students is not likely to confirm the abuse to adults, because of an underlying desire to be accepted by the very students abusing him or her,” Morris says. “It’s the behavior that occurs out of the sight of adults. It’s what kids do to other kids where teachers, parents and administrators can’t see.’’

In Phoebe’s case, the school staff appears to have tolerated the bullying or at least failed to clamp down on it. While Phoebe and her mother did report the repeated hazing to the school, it’s unclear whether anyone took it seriously.

Did the administration call in the nine students and their parents — middle-class families with college aspirations for their offspring — and advise them that one more incident would result in expulsion and an end to their college dreams?

If the school failed in its caretaking role, the parents can seek satisfaction through civil action, but adolescent behavior — even as brutal as this appears to have been — does not necessarily a felony make.

A danger with focusing on what these nine immature and nasty teenagers did is that we will not spend enough time looking at what the adults in the school didn’t do.

I have heard from many readers who disagree, and this is one of them. With her permission, I am running her very strong note:

Usually, as I read your columns, I am grateful that the AJC has a local columnist who expresses opinions I respect and can identify with. Which is why I was aghast at your piece “Was she bullied to death?” where you bend over backwards trying to excuse the nine people charged with hounding a 15-year old girl to death.

The physical and verbal attacks Phoebe Prince endured would have been punishable crimes had they been committed in the adult
workplace.  But because they were committed in a school you believe special, gentler rules should be administered to these perpetrators you call “immature and nasty teenagers.”

You may have missed the story last week about the death of James Aubrey, who portrayed the hero in the movie version of William Golding’s classic tale of bullying, “Lord of the Flies.” The book, and the film, explains brilliantly the mechanism of bullying. I highly recommend your reading the book or seeing the film. I have no doubt that if those boys on that island had been equipped with cellphones, they too would have texted each other “mission accomplished,” which the accused girls in South Hadley did when they learned of Phoebe’s death.

There is nothing immature about those girls.  Their behavior was cold, calculating and detached. If you can’t see that, may I recommend some additional reading… like, anything by Hannah Arendt, but mostly “On Violence” and “The Banality of Evil.” I would also recommend a viewing of the German  “The White Ribbon.”

Phoebe Prince was not killed by unknown thugs from a deprived, racially diverse neighborhood; her death was brought about by thugs she knew, thugs who lived in comfortable homes in an affluent white community. But she’s just as dead. And thugs are thugs.  Do you honestly believe that Phoebe’s tormentors  would have realized the errors of their ways if, like you suggest, “they had been advised that one more incident would result in expulsion and an end to their to college dreams”?  In all likelihood, they’d be laughing, texting and tweeting about their “success” as they left the principal’s office.

Your attempts to blame the victim reminds me of the time rape victims were scared of bringing charges because they knew that in court they would be portrayed as loose women “asking for it.”  Do you honestly think a girl goes and hangs herself because she hasn’t seen her friends in a couple of months? (”Was Phoebe homesick for Ireland and her friends?”)

I don’t know where you live, but it must be a lovely, sheltered world!

About the only thing I agree with in your article is the very last line. The adults in this case, the school officials AND the parents of these teenage terrorists, share blame in Phoebe Prince’s death.

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[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Aaron Watt and tom serona, Maureen Downey. Maureen Downey said: The Phoebe Prince case: Punishable crimes in the adult world? [...]


April 21st, 2010
5:52 am

I agree with the reader who wrote in. The kind of rhetoric that Ms. Downey spews forth comes from someone who has never endured the extreme level of bullying that some of these kids have had to suffer through.

Granted Ms. Downey is paid to elicit comments from the readership and making provocative comments is her m.o. But for those of us who have not only been on the receiving end, but also had children deal with it too, it definitely strikes a nerve and will not be tolerated for the sake of those that are currently being bullied or could be in the future. Retribution needs to be swift and harsh.

The emotional scars can last a lifetime. Even 30 years after tracking down the several bullies that beat me up or harassed me in school, I still don’t have closure. Even after waiting for the kids that bullied my son to turn 18, it still feels like an ongoing battle. I encounter rude obnoxious people frequently that appear to not care how they treat others. Even if it’s aggressive driving like tailgating someone because they’ll only driving the speed limit or blowing pass school buses and endangering children, it adds up. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Contrary to what Ms. Downey would have us do, our society needs to put the proverbial foot down and cease to tolerate it. Those that choose to prey on others and act contrary to their welfare, at any age, should pay a price.

Mid-South Philosopher

April 21st, 2010
6:13 am

Tragic as this case is and as much blame as there seems to be to go around, the real value of this terrible matter may be in the realization that it is indicative of a gross inadequacy in the current model of schooling to deal with post-modern, 21st century, adolescent “dramas” played out everyday in the environment of the 19th century, factory-style, public schools that, despite computers and smart boards (the latter which are found only on the walls), make-up the preponderance of our learning institutions. Throw in even more incompetent politicians and bureaucrats, disgruntled parents and other child care attendees, teachers, who are inundated with paperwork and plied with stress to make sure the kids pass that asinine test that could not be passed by 80 % of the Georgia General Assembly members, and a public at-large that has its proverbial “head in the sand”, and we are confronted with a question of brutal truth….”What do we expect?”

Corporal Punishment

April 21st, 2010
9:57 am

“Even 30 years after tracking down the several bullies that beat me up or harassed me in school, I still don’t have closure.”

My what a delicate sister!


April 21st, 2010
12:08 pm

Stop blaming the schools for everything children do. These children have parents. Blame the parents. Parents should be the first line of responsibility when it comes to their children. Not the schools. A lot of schools are charter schools and are run by the parents. The school staff has little to say about what can be done with the children. Children know when they are wrong. That is why they do their dirt away from the adults. When there is no punishment they will continue to harrass other kids. When kids harrass other kids there is a problem in the home of the harrasser and they have to take it out on someone they see as vulnerable. There should be a strict law against harrassment of any kind and enforce it. The bully children have bully parents. That is where this behavior comes from.


April 21st, 2010
12:52 pm

Release the names of these “Bullies” and I guarantee they will receive a life time punishment from their “Equals”….


April 21st, 2010
2:14 pm

I have a bit too much experience with this subject. My daughter was bullied for years in elementary school, first physically and later verbally and emotionally. I was in the dark about most of it, because, as I was later informed by my daughter, no one likes a tattle tale. The bullies and their friends taught her that one. However, they relished in reporting her actions, usually fabricated, to the school. The result: she was a trouble maker, who spent a lot of time in detention. My daughter wouldn’t defend herself to the staff, she had learned years earlier during the physical abuse stage (different student whose mother volunteered at the school) that the staff couldn’t be trusted. Why should they? They blew off kicking and punching she endured two years earlier. It’s just boys being boys. Seriously, that’s what they told me. These students can be lying, manipulative and cunning. They are used to getting what they want and when they don’t, they can be extremially abusive. The ring leader of this little group used to be a friend of my daughters. We encouraged our daughter not to associate with her, we didn’t like how she spoke to her parents and found her to be manipulative and pushy, however, it was her choice. The parents would just laugh and say, “oh my, kids”. Yah, right. Within a year our daughter decided not to play with her anymore and that is when the trouble started. If the friend couldn’t play with our daughter then no one else could. For lack of time and space I could go on for pages of what she and her little group did to her, and the reponses I would get from staff. They take the easiest route they can and when it’s one child against six. Slam dunk. Not once did they ask for my daughters version of events, I wouldn’t have believed it had it not happend to us.

What shocks me the most was the reaction of the other parents. They knew what she was like, but were supportive of the friendship. The reason I believe is the desire for their children to be popular. It is something I hear parents say a lot. Oh, so and so has so many friends. I’ve taught my girls it’s not the quantity but quality of friends that are important. It took almost two years to undo the damage that was done, I feel a lot of guilt and ask myself is there anything that I could have done? Did I miss any signs? We always had really good communication, but this floored me. I honestly don’t know what I could have done, because I would have, if I could. In her first week of middle school I had a sit down and information sharing session with her new teacher, didn’t mention names. I just asked her to keep an eye out and encouraged her to talk to my daughter if she seemed upset, she was more receptive than her elementary teachers. Last year she made the honours list. This year she’s set for highest honourable achievement. She loves school now.

The school, society and parents of the perpetrators are to blame. The fact is the teachers are there. I do respect the fact that dealing with the “oh, Johnny and Susy would never do that, blah, blah” defensive parents is a head ache, but ignoring or punishing the victim is nothing short of pathetic and a cope out. I often find that adults will not stand up to bullies. I once watched an irrate and unreasonable soccer mom tell off a the soccer dad who was trying to diffuse her. He never returned to the field. I was her next victim. Why, I avoided her, I don’t like bullies and I don’t like yelling. The other parents made excuses for her, “oh’s she’s really a nice person”. Nice people apologize when they are rude or hurt others. It’s an uncomfortable issue that society needs to address. But bullies know how to feed on our fears and we continue to satisfy their appetite.


April 21st, 2010
2:36 pm

So what if she (Phoebe) was sad, disturbed, mentally ill. That does not excuse the crimes committed by the 9 subhumans. What if she had been in a wheelchair or had an awful disfigurement or if she was “mentally challenged” would the bullying be excused then as well?


April 21st, 2010
4:23 pm

I really don’t understand how this behavior was reported to the school and they failed to do anything about it or they just didn’t take it seriously. I mean really…. in the society we live in today? The effects of bullying are very well known. We hear about it all the time, in the news, on talk shows, in the newspaper, etc. How could the school not investigate the report from Phoebe and her mother? The students and parents should have been called in and this issue should have been confronted as soon as it was reported. It went too far.
I can’t imagine what Phoebe was feeling when she made the decision to end her life. And while she may have been homesick, I don’t think that was the deciding factor in her taking her own life. I think, she reached a point where she could not face the bullying anymore and no one was doing anything to stop these “immature and nasty teenagers”. I also believe that’s why the teenagers continued to bully and torment her, no one did anything to stop them.


April 21st, 2010
6:07 pm

The National Education Association reports that over 160,000 kids skip school every day because they are afraid of being bullied. That is just the tip of the iceberg of the amount of kids being harassed at schools. In the past, beating your wife and kids was considered acceptable. Something that had always happened. Our society changed that in the 1960’s, and started to make such behavior socially stigmatized and illegal. In the 21st century, harassment can take place 24/7 and effects millions of lives.It’s time our community gives peer abuse (fka bullying) the same attention that child abuse and beating a spouse have received. We have plenty of laws that protect adults from the physical, electronic, verbal and sexual harassment the victim in this case received. It’s time as a community we protect our kids. It will take a multi-pronged approach, with churches, parents, students, schools and the community to raise our kids. There should be social stigma attached to harassment aka bullying similar to child or spousal abuse.

AZ HomeSchooler

April 22nd, 2010
12:37 am

I was intrigued by the previous poster’s reference to the NEA and their statistics regarding bullying. This is the same teacher’s union that has had for many years a specific resolution against home-schooling. One of the standard anti-homeschooling arguments, albeit unsupported, is that homeschooled students are not properly “socialized”. Hmmm, I guess I’ll pass on the public-school socialization program.

Carter McKenzie

April 22nd, 2010
1:22 am

My prayers go to Phoebe’s family, to the little sister who found her. The classmates who created her misery should be held accountable. One would hope that they will eventually understand the impact of their actions, and regret it. Not only regret, but live with remorse. Maybe remorse will lead to some kind of compassion. What have they grown up with, that they should be so filled with hatred? These are our children–how do they reflect our society?

Eric Simmons

April 22nd, 2010
3:53 am is launching a Cyber-Bullying Initiative in light of Phoebe Prince, to inform parents about what it is, how to spot the signs and to put a stop to it! Read my (Eric Simmons, Editor of TWW) daily blogs and lend your support to this initiative:


April 22nd, 2010
6:37 am

If this was a boy that killed himself there would not be one peep about it in the news.

Boys commit suicide 5 TIMES as much as girls and they are never given coverage.

bootney farnsworth

April 22nd, 2010
7:37 am

I must confess I don’t get what Maureen is not getting here.

While it seems true untimately Phoebe took her own life, it is undeniably true she was stalked, run to ground, and killed by a
pack of feral animals known as teenage girls – with help from
the boys who service and enable them.

In a society where a teenage boy can be labeled as a sexual predator
for things as simple eye contactor a comment, how can the feral animals who hounded Pheobe be anything less than culpable?

What it finally comes down to is even now, years out of high school,
most people still can’t break the emotional orbit of those years.
Society still wants to cozy up to the popular kids and trash the
geeks and the weak ones. As already pointed out, these acts done
by adults are criminal charges with serious punishments.

But because the animals in question are mostly athletes and popular
girls, our celebrity obsessed culture will gladly give them a pass.
Moreover, we just gave them one free kill. Happily – after all, they
are jocks and popular girls: what’s the life of one foriegn girl against “them”?

Just how many of these animals have shown any real remorse?

Folks say the school didn’t know – they knew, they just didn’t care
to know the particulars. Just like the rest of the apologists.

They term folks can’t seem to wrap their heads around is depraved
indifference. With an emphasis on depraved.

bootney farnsworth

April 22nd, 2010
7:39 am

@ Jen

this society doesn’t give a damn about boys.

bootney farnsworth

April 22nd, 2010
7:40 am

stuck in the damn filter again


April 22nd, 2010
1:52 pm

A word to the wise is sufficient. And this doubly applies to the emotionally stressed as well.

The SH6 used continuous words, threats and violence against Phoebe every chance they could even to this day, after she’d cried “UNCLE” many times. They wanted her dead. And they want to get away with it.


April 22nd, 2010
2:30 pm

Ms. Dowdy:
Consider the following scenario: You have a neighbor who lives a couple houses down from you. She has taken to verbally harassing you whenever she has the opportunity. The reason: you briefly dated her current boyfriend. So, while you’re out gardening, getting your mail, relaxing on your front porch, even when you’re out doing errands, she finds you and unleashes verbal taunts at you. Sometimes she rants for five minutes at a time. Almost daily, you confront this woman who takes enjoyment from calling you are whore and a slut, inserting the “f” word here and there, and even derides your family background. At first you feel sorry for the women assuming that she is mentally ill. You try to ignore it, but it’s hard to ignore – you can expect the intense verbal abuse and insults every day now. At this point you’re a little more than annoyed and, although you’ve told her to stop, she does not. Instead she continues at a greater intensity and recruits her friends to come over and do the same thing, and then even more friends. Now you have five people verbally attacking you on an intermittent basis. In addition these people have started to get physical, slamming you against your car while deriding you with their vulgar language. Your personal boundaries have been invaded to such a great level that you decide to contact the police. The police come and issue the woman a warning to stop (and call off her gang). She doesn’t stop and you finally have to have a court order issued to have her leave you alone.

I know this scenario sounds crazy and absurd, but the truth is your experience would have been identical to that of Phoebe Prince’s. The only difference: Phoebe was on school grounds and therefore had none of the protections you would have. There is no way you cannot call the behavior of the “bullies” crminal harrasment, and that is what they are being charged for.

Lets hope that legislation will be put in place to allow the criminal justice system to treat bullies who terrorize on this level they way they need to be treated: as criminals.

Brya Lee

April 22nd, 2010
3:14 pm

I saw a jouralist from Ireland say that she already had baggage before coming to the US.
All people have baggage. For all we know the boys in this case had baggage from whatever
was going on in their life backgrounds. Baggage or no baggage, she was a beautiful girl
with a beautiful life ahead of her, and no one listened to her pleas. Same thing happened
20 miles west in Northampton a few years ago. At Smith Vocational High School, a student was
bullied for years when he then stabbed and killed his tormentor. He is in jail. Should he be able
to be freed due to his situation, I think so. Sticks and stones will break bones, and they will heal
but names will forever haunt us. It comes down to one thing, Fear.They were tormenting her with
Fear. Fear is worse then the pain of death. It is better to endure physical pain then go around being
afraid. I know first hand the real difference. Now my neighbor who steals, writes huge signs carved in fire, and shoots guns at night keeps harassing us because he is loosing his land in foreclosure and
wants to use ours, the courts say it is all free speech and the police say he is an uncle so they will
not do anything because it is civil it is family so we have to get a lawyer and we can not afford one, so the judge actually gave him a shooting range 30 feet from our home. He has no home just a trailer we have a real home with taxes and a permit.. They say in Columbine people had forewarnings but no one did anything, and when we had forewarnings and went to the authorities, they do NOTHING.

Brya Lee

April 22nd, 2010
5:38 pm

Also being a k-12 substitute teacher for years I saw first hand yes, and I did something about it, I
saw the second I went into the room, the boys get treated very poorly by the girls, and they were
not used to me addressing this promptly. One boy cried in the sixth grade when he saw I noticed the
abuse from girls. It seemed sexist but I was not trying to be, I said I will not tolerate abuse at all, but it kept being the girls against the boys each time I witnessed it so it became, by pattern only what seemed one girl told the principal at recess, that I was for the boys and against the girls
In first grade I walked in and girl was hitting a boy with a ruler, I said what are you doing, she said he stole my ruler and I found it in his things, I said, I do not care if he broke it, burned it or hid it on you you can NOT hit him, oh oh, our teacher would say it was okay, then again in fifth grade a girl wemt up to a boy working quietly at his desk and she yelled in his ear. I said what are you doing, you can not yell at him like that…then three boys came to me to say that the girls are always getting away
with things but they get away with nothing, they can giggle give more minutes but they have to shut
up pronto, ect, one was crying. At recess all the girls went to the principal, not to worry, I thought
I am only a substitute noticing a very sad situation in our schools today. I did what I could and I still volunteer now.
The articles say Miss Prince of America (I want to name her that, please) was depressed. I dont think so at all. She was showing us all something. Our own denial to face abuse head on. She knew exactly what she was doing. She read up on it and she wrote articles on it and she spoke up about it a depressed person does not and can not “get it out” ie, depressed. She was active and very alive
but again I want to stress the fear factor, fear is no fun, no matter how non-depressed one is.
Fear is an invisible danger that always wins when there is no support from anyone. Fear won here,
not depression.
Miss Prince of America – to me she was like a Female Warrior, fighting in her deepest innocence
to show how brave she really was, imagine taking ones life? the guts it takes to do such a thing
we can and should thank you for waking us all up to this horrible world we are living in, and thank her
again for forcing us to make real changes. To be she will always be a Saint to this cause. I only
wish there could have been some other way than this but this is exactly what it took, again, she
knew exactly what she was doing.

sauerkraut at The Litterbox blog

April 22nd, 2010
7:13 pm

All though opinions on this matter do not always follow the same line, it is fairly obvious that people are aghast at how vicious bullies can be and that people want those involved to be held accountable.

But there need to be a few clarifications:

1) 6 former SHHS students are under indictment on various charges. 6, not 9.

2) the identities of those 6 are already known. if you are getting your names from blog or forum posts from before March 29, then you probably have an inaccurate list of names.

3) in MA, school staff is solely responsible for what happens in the building. schools also retain legal responsibility for students (and by extension their behaviors) from door to door. since parents are not within the school buildings during the school day, it is wrong to heap blame on them for the behaviors observed by school staff.

4) no matter her frailties, imagined or real, she cannot be held accountable for the crimes committed against her by those who now stand indicted for those crimes.

dan bloom

April 23rd, 2010
11:00 pm

Although opinions on this matter do not all always follow the same line of thinking or argument, it is quite obvious that people are aghast at how vicious the bullies were and that people want those involved to be held accountable.

No matter her frailties, imagined or real, Phoebe Prince cannot be held accountable for the crimes committed against her by those who now stand indicted for those crimes. but readers should know that there are reports now out in the media that allege, allege mind you, not confirmed yet, that Phoebe attempted suicide 8 times previously in Ireland before ever setting foot in South Hadley and came to school a week before January 14, the day she impulsively and irrationally decided to hang herself — all suicides are irrational and tragic — with cigarette burns on her body. Ask the school officials. They know this. It will come out in the trial, since the print media cannot print unconfirmed allegations.

So while Phoebe cannot and should not be held accountable for her actions, and while we can never blame the victim, it also needs to be said that we don’t know all the details yet and when they do come out, all the opinions above, including mine here, might change considerably. This story is not over by a long shot. This story has legs. The media narrative will soon be overturned and a whole new Hollywood playbook will emerge. It’s sad.

But for now, prayers for PP’s family, mom and dad and sisters in Ireland.

Brya Lee

April 24th, 2010
9:46 pm

I pray for her and her family because there was something about her smile and demeanor that just
strikes me to the core. She was just so adorable, she looked so kind, so happy, so spirited.