Friday, December 7, 2012

A Massachusetts Tragedy: Phoebe Prince

Read Charlotte Canelli's column in the December 7, 2012 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

It was nearly three years ago when fifteen-year old Phoebe Prince took her life in her home in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

I first read about this sad story when Kevin Cullin, a Boston Globe columnist, brought it to light in a column published in the Globe on January 24, 2010. “The Untouchable Mean Girls” moved me so much that I wrote to Mr. Cullin praising him for his courage. It’s not always easy to be brave, to champion the underdog or to upset the status quo.

This sad story of Phoebe Prince also pulled at my heartstrings because of my own personal experience. Yes, I had been a young girl once and remembered how mean girls can be. I also remembered a time when my own teenaged daughter was relentlessly bullied by a group of high school girls. Fortunately, my daughter was emotionally strong and brave like so many of us have to be. Yet, my daughter’s tormenter was the daughter of one of my closest neighbors. I was a lonely, isolated mom living out a short-term assignment in a strange southern state and I was reluctant to tear asunder that relationship. While I believed in my heart that my daughter would survive the brutality I have, however, always regretted my own lack of courage.

Phoebe Prince was a gregarious, bright and cheerful high school freshman, recently transplanted from a small village on the coast of Ireland to a quaint New England town. Within days of beginning school at South Hadley High, Phoebe had made friends and was popular. Within months, however, she was the target of cruelty and jealously gone very wrong.

Several people in the months and years after Phoebe’s death speculated that her slight, girlish shoulders bore the brunt of that bullying behavior. Her sprightly spirit caused many to think that she was strong enough and brave enough to withstand the brutality of high school and the taunts of her classmates. What is painfully obvious to everyone now is that she was not strong or brave enough. School administrators and teachers accustomed and hardened to a mean, callous high school environment looked the other way, ignored the warning signs and failed a young, vulnerable young girl. In the end, they also failed the entire high school and the entire town.

It might first appear as if the serenity of the small New England town of South Hadley, home to elite Mt. Holyoke College, was shattered by the death of Phoebe Prince. However, the reality was that a culture of bullying and meanness already existed in the town, particularly the high school. This atmosphere is certainly not an isolated phenomenon to South Hadley, New England or even to the 21st century. Brutal child behavior has been pervasive in schools, on playgrounds, in dance studios, on sport fields and in neighborhoods as long as people can remember. These abusive behaviors, however, have become even more powerful in an environment that not only includes the gym, cafeteria and school bus, but pervades the online and social networking experience like email and Facebook.

Local news channels and national ones like NBC’s Dateline, Massachusetts newspapers (including the Boston Globe and and magazines like People all covered the Phoebe Prince tragedy and the trials of the South Hadley Six (six teens charged with causing Phoebe’s suicide.) Journalism students at the University of Massachusetts contributed audio, video and print records of their own.

None of the six teens, in the end, were jailed although several apologized and took some responsibility for their “crime.” All of their lives were irreparably changed, however, as the drama played out over the course of several years.

E.J. Fleming, a Chicago writer with roots in the Springfield, MA area, has just published a book describing the pain and torture Phoebe endured and the dysfunction of South Hadley, Massachusetts. His theory, of course, is not universal. Some in the small New England town are angry at what they argue is misrepresentation. Other South Hadley residents believe that Phoebe was a troubled teen who was not pushed to suicide by her peers who were jealous of her popularity and beauty but who battled depression and teenage angst on her own.

“Tread Lightly: Bullying and the Death of Phoebe Prince” is currently available only in digital format. (The print version will be out next spring but the Morrill Memorial Library has added the electronic title to our Nooks. Nooks can be reserved and checked out by Norwood patrons over the age of 18 for three weeks.)

Readers should be warned that one of the problems of self-published digital titles is that they often include errors. Throughout Fleming’s book there are errors that remain uncorrected by an editor. When explaining small-town government in Massachusetts, Fleming states “Unlike almost every other New England town, South Hadley has no elected mayor responsible for policy.” What Fleming should have written was “Like almost every other New England town...” There are also glaring misspellings such as “father” for “farther” and “bullying” for “bullied.” It is hard for a librarian to recommend these unedited publications but they are becoming more common than rare in our era.

In the end, however, Fleming does tell a compelling, well-researched story of conspiratorial cover up by school and town officials. It is a chronicle of a young, vibrant teenager who was perhaps more emotionally fragile than the teachers and school administrators understood. It is the tragic tale of young adults who did not understand the consequences of their mean and cruel behavior.

If you would like to borrow one of the digital copies of “Tread Lightly” on a library Nook, please call the Reference desk, 781-769-0200 or speak to one of our librarians.