Our teenage years, specifically high school years, are never easy. Everyone is awkward, changing, filled with self-doubt about some things and unwarranted confidence about others. Friends are more important than ever and your future hangs in the balance.
For one 15-year-old girl, these feelings were not unfamiliar and they were only compounded by the fact that she had just moved across the Atlantic…
15-year-old Phoebe Prince was not having an easy time of things. Not only were her teenage body and emotions in a constant state of flux, she was also forced to move away from her home in Ireland to Massachusetts. Still, she had been in the US for months and it seemed that despite some culture shock, she was fitting in just fine.
Like many high schools in the United States, South Hadley High School in South Hadley, Massachusetts was a battleground for the hormone-addled teens who pursued their education within its walls. Before Phoebe knew what was happening, she too became embroiled in the day-to-day fight to just keep her head above water and she seemed to be doing ok, or so people believed…
A Grim Sight
In January of 2010, Phoebe’s mother woke up to a nightmare. She went into her 15-year-old daughter’s room to wake her for school and found, to her shock and horror, that Phoebe had hanged herself in the middle of the night. She had no idea what to think, no idea what to do. She’d known that Phoebe had been struggling with the move, but had no idea that things had been that bad.
The police were called and an investigation began. Phoebe’s mother couldn’t believe that she’d been even slightly suicidal. The proof was there though and it was hammered home by one, cruel reply on her daughter’s Facebook suicide post. The cold commenter simply replied to the news of Phoebe’s death with the word, “Accomplished”…
Made No Sense
It made no sense, at least not to the adults involved. You’d expect that a pretty, outgoing girl like Phoebe would have an easy time fitting in just about anywhere, but you’d be wrong and high school kids understand what I’m saying. It’s never easy to navigate your way through a new school and it’s even harder if you’re markedly different from everyone else.
To her new American classmates, it was as if she had three eyes, as if she was something to be reviled. They’d look at her funny, mutter snarky remarks under their breath in the hallway, and generally, just treat her badly. Despite the fact that she barely knew any of them, bullies had labelled her a “slut” and an “Irish whore” and this treatment went on for months, unabated…
“Right away they just jumped on her without even giving her a try,” said Sergio Loubriel, one of her only friends at the school. Yet, she never seemed to tell anyone about these troubles, or how they were affecting her. Her friends did their best to help her shrug them off, but deep down, the stinging words of her fellow students continued to fester.
Not Just at School…
The abuse, which Phoebe managed to keep entirely secret from her family as well, wasn’t just going on at South Hadley High School. Somehow, her cruel classmates had even gotten ahold of her phone number and were harassing her even when she was away from campus. They sent her abusive text messages and harassed her on her Facebook Wall…
The Build Up
It wouldn’t be found out until long after the event had occurred, but the three days leading up to Phoebe’s death were what may have sent her over the edge. Three days earlier, a student had confided in a school staff member that someone had scratched Phoebe’s face out of a class photo and drawn something obscene over it.
Terrible to Behold
This proved to be a mere catalyst of what was to come and though the staffer took the picture down, he did nothing to try and figure out who had defaced it in the first place. This of course was only one of many incidents of aggressive bullying that befell Pheobe Prince in the last days of her life…
The last person to make plans with Phoebe, her friend Sergio Loubriel, had been waiting for her to call his house after dinner on the night she died. When she didn’t he just assumed she had fallen asleep. When he’d heard what had happened, he blamed himself. She may not have said anything, but as far as he was concerned, he should have been able to tell something was up.
Insult Breeds Injury
Meanwhile, as investigators continued to parse through the hows and whys of Phoebe’s untimely death, they began to uncover a campaign of cruel, unnecessary bullying by her high school classmates that seemed to continue even after her death. It was as if her bullies had no shame at all over what they’d done…
Pretty soon, the Northeastern District Attorney’s office took the blame for Pheobe’s death to the next most likely culprits, the very people who allowed it to happen under their noses: the employees of South Hadley High School. Of course, the school superintendent, Gus Sayer, said that the staff only became aware of the rampant bullying a week before the poor girl killed herself.
One incident, which happened mere hours before Phoebe committed suicide, saw the poor girl being verbally attacked while studying in the library. The staff member who witnessed the incident didn’t come forward until after her death and this is, sadly, indicative of the “sweep it under the rug” type reaction that many administrators have to bullying these days…
Mr. Sayer of course disputes the claim the DA made that the staff member witnessed the abuse. According to him, “There was a staff member present, but that person did not overhear those conversations.” Ultimately though, the teachers were not the instigators, merely the casual, some would say, impassive observers. It was the students who tormented Phoebe who were to blame.
Six teenagers were eventually charged for a variety of criminal offences in the case. These included: statutory rape, which was eventually dropped by Prince’s family, stalking, and even assault and battery. They received community service and probation, a proverbial “slap on the wrist” for their crimes. But it was the catalyst the state needed to institute change…
Phoebe’s isn’t the only story of bullying taken to the extreme. 16-year-old Jessica Laney of Hudson, Florida was found dead in her home after receiving dozens of cruel Facebook messages calling her “fat”, a “slut”, and several other defamatory remarks. Her abuse too had gone on for months without surcease and pushed her towards a grim end.
One of her tormentors even directly prodded her into doing the deed by asking Jessica, “Can you kill yourself already?” Still another added, “Nobody even cares about you.” These comments absolutely and unequivocally caused her to go through with her suicide attempt. And something has to be done…
The systematic bullying and tragic suicides of Phoebe Prince and Jessica Laney are just several of the hundreds of similar stories happening as we speak throughout this country. They are classic examples of cyberbullying taken to depraved extremes. Yet all is not lost.
Since Phoebe’s death, anti-bullying hotlines have been established in cities all across the world. They provide those who have no other positive outlet with someone who will listen to them and help them feel that things will get better. But it is also up to us as parents to listen to our kids and to recognize when they need help.