Phoebe Prince was a fifteen year-old girl who committed suicide after months of bullying from other students at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts. Phoebe was an Irish immigrant, pretty, but different enough to have difficulty in finding her “place” in the various and confusing high school social circles. The following article describes the settlement that was reached between Prince family, the town of South Hadley and the teenagers accused of the harassment. The town and family agreed that the financial agreement would remain sealed.
A bullying case that drew international attention after 15-year-old Phoebe Prince committed suicide came to a close Thursday as three teens admitted to misdemeanor counts and a final charge was dropped against a sixth defendant.
Prince hanged herself with a scarf in her South Hadley home on Jan. 14, 2010, sparking a firestorm that consumed the public school system in that town and the public consciousness over the issue of bullying. In Prince’s case, the tragic consequences captivated the globe.
The death of the immigrant from Ireland helped spark an international campaign to address the issue of bullying and made Prince an icon to many who have suffered that humiliation. In all, six former South Hadley High School students were charged in connection with classmate Prince.
Austin Renaud, one of two charged with the statutory rape of the underage Prince, was scheduled for a pretrial conference in Hampshire Superior Court on July 6, but Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan announced his office had dismissed the case against Renaud at the request of Prince’s family.
“The O’Brien-Prince family has never wavered in what they hoped would be achieved through these cases: a public recognition of wrongdoing, an acceptance of responsibility from the defendants, and a heightened awareness of the harmful consequences of bullying,” Sullivan told a crowd of reporters gathered in a conference room at the Mullins Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst early Thursday evening.
The press gathering took place after cases were resolved against a half-dozen defendants charged with various crimes in connection with the harassment of Prince.
Earlier Thursday, the image of a kind-hearted Prince as described by her mother brought tears to the eyes of some of her aggressors as three defendants’ cases were closed in Hadley Juvenile Court. Two other cases were resolved a day earlier in Hampshire Superior Court.
Sharon C. Velazquez, 17, and Flannery Mullins, 18, admitted that the facts were sufficient for a delinquency finding of criminal harassment, while Ashley Longe, 18, did the same for the misdemeanor counts of disturbing a school assembly and a civil rights violation. As a result, the charges against Mullins and Longe will be continued without a finding until they turn 19, and the case against Velazquez until her 18th birthday. After that time, the cases will be dismissed.
A number of other charges against the three were dismissed as well, as a result of their agreements. The maximum penalty for conviction on the delinquency charges would have been commitment to the Department of Youth Services.
As she did Wednesday, when defendants Sean Mulveyhill and Kayla Narey reached similar agreements on criminal harassment counts in Hampshire Superior Court, Anne O’Brien, Prince’s mother, read compelling statements that painted a vivid picture of her daughter and the grief O’Brien has endured since losing her.
Velazquez and Mullins harassed Prince in the classrooms and hallways of the high school because of rumors that Prince was romantically involved with Renaud, Mullins’ boyfriend, according to prosecutor Steven E. Gagne. Longe taunted Prince at the urging of Narey’s boyfriend Mulveyhill, who had also been involved with Prince, Gagne said. Their actions, along with those of Narey and Mulveyhill, made life at school intolerable for Prince in the weeks leading up to her suicide, according to O’Brien.
A distraught O’Brien stood up in court three times Thursday, addressing each of the defendant’s cases separately. Of Velazquez, she said, “She terrified my daughter by her anger and physical aggression. Phoebe walked between people in the hallway in case she jumped her.”
O’Brien compared Mullins’ threat that she wanted to fight Prince to her daughter’s embrace of another student who was having difficulties in school and at home.
“I’m so proud of my daughter,” she said. “It was a challenge for her to make it through each day without coming to harm.”
Longe, who admitted to harassing Prince and was charged with throwing a soft drink can at her from a car, was the only defendant who took responsibility for her actions, O’Brien said, telling the court that the two of them met Wednesday at Longe’s request.
“She had been asking to meet with me,” O’Brien told Judge Daniel J. Swords. “It showed a lot of courage. I’m very satisfied that the accountability and genuine remorse I’d been asking for was offered to me by Ashley Longe.”
Longe and her mother wept while O’Brien spoke. Velazquez also cried when O’Brien read her statement during her disposition.
According to the evidence presented by Gagne at the three court sessions, Prince lived in almost constant terror at school during the last week of her life. Velazquez assailed her in class in front of other students, and Mullins’ threats shook her up so much that Prince skipped classes and went to the school nurse. Longe made disparaging remarks about Prince outside the school auditorium and threw a can at her while Prince was walking home on the day of her suicide, Gagne said. When Longe called Mulveyhill to tell him what she had done, he replied, “Good job,” Gagne said.
Attorney Alfred Chamberland, who represented Mullins, took issue with the prosecution. Saying that the defendants in the Prince case had been “overcharged,” Chamberland called the plea agreements an acknowledgment by the Northwestern District Attorney’s office that felony indictments were not warranted.
Chamberland also said his client has been “demonized” in the minds of the American public.
Sullivan said Prince’s mother and father worked with the district attorney’s office throughout the investigation and regarded her persecutors with “mercy, compassion and understanding.”
He was less enthusiastic about what he deemed the South Hadley school system’s mishandling of the crisis, but affirmed predecessor Elizabeth D. Scheibel’s decision not to bring criminal charges against school officials.
In response to questions about whether Scheibel “overcharged” the youths 16 months ago in response to intense public pressure, Sullivan denied she did and said the case will serve as an emblem for “peace and safety for every school child in America and beyond.