Light of young Irish girl snuffed out by bullies

TRAGIC Irish teenager Phoebe Prince felt like she was in a movie when she first arrived at her American high school last September.

But being a student at South Hadley in Massachusetts turned out to be a real chiller for the 15-year-old, who was tormented to death by bullies.

A group of girls in the school ostracised her for having a brief romance with a member of the football team and made her life hell.

They were the pretty girls who played sports, were cheerleaders and went out with all the best-looking guys in the school. They called her an “Irish slut”.

Because Phoebe had the ‘audacity’ to briefly date a senior football player, the popular girls thought she did not know her place.

At first they just taunted the pretty 15-year-old who grew up in Fanore, Co Clare, about her Irish accent, but soon started abusing and chasing her.

After her brief relationship with the footballer ended, the bullies launched a cyberspace campaign, taunting her with vile text messages and Facebook postings.

On January 14 last, the day she died, Phoebe was walking home when a girl passing in a car threw a drink can at her as well as a tirade of abuse.

Phoebe hanged herself.

This week nine students at the school were charged with offences including civil rights violations, statutory rape, stalking and inflicting bodily injury on the teenager.

Head of the Anti-Bullying Centre in Trinity College Dublin, Dr Mona O’Moore, said: “She was very distressed and very hurt and looking for a release from the pain that was overshadowing the concern she would have had for her parents.

“It is extraordinarily sad, but for me it is not surprising. I have always stressed that bullying is associated with suicide,” she said.

US prosecutor Elizabeth Scheibel said the girl’s death was the culmination of a campaign of verbally assaultive behaviour and threats of physical harm that had gone on for almost three months.

“The investigation revealed relentless activity directed toward Phoebe, designed to humiliate her and make it impossible for her to remain at school,” she said. “The bullying, for her, became intolerable.”

Phoebe was born in England and moved to Ireland when she was two years old, with her parents, Anne O’Brien Prince and Jeremy Prince.

The Prince family, which included sisters Lauren, Bridget and Tessa and brother, Simon, then moved to the US last year.

It is possible that some staff members at the 700-pupil school may face charges because they knew of the bullying but did nothing about it.

Phoebe’s mother had discussed the bullying of her daughter with at least two members of staff.

Some of the bullying and abuse is alleged to have happened in front of teachers.

Even after Phoebe’s death, bullies left vile comments on a Facebook page created in her memory which has since been removed.

Phoebe’s family are still in Massachusetts but have left the rented apartment where she ended her life.

Court dates have now been set for six Massachusetts teens accused of bullying the teen.

South Hadley residents Ashley Longe, Flannery Mullins and Sharon Chanon Velazquez will appear before Franklin-Hampshire Juvenile Court this Thursday at 2pm. The 16-year-old girls face charges of violation of civil rights with bodily injury resulting. Mullins and Velazquez also face one charge each of stalking.

Meanwhile, arraignments for the three other teenagers in connection with the tragedy are set for Tuesday in Hampshire Superior Court in Northampton. They are 17-year-old South Hadley residents Kayla Narey and Sean Mulveyhill, as well as 18-year-old Austin Renaud, of Springfield. Narey and Mulveyhill face charges of one count each of violation of civil rights with bodily injury resulting and criminal harassment. In addition, Renaud and Mulveyhill are each charged with one count of statutory rape.

Three other teenage girls from South Hanley, who have not been named, face delinquency charges.

Dr O’Moore said she was glad that the charges against the teenagers were announced this week.

Some of the most serious civil rights violations carry maximum 10-year prison sentences.

“I think it is great that the youngsters are appearing in court because that sends out a very strong message to everybody that bullying is very serious and has dire consequences,” she said.

She pointed out that cyber-bullying reinforced and supported the abusive and threatening behaviour that happened face to face.

And, she said, bullies who used video clips on the internet heightened the humiliation because of the audience that could be reached.

“Teenagers feel like the whole world is looking in on them so nasty messages and videos left on the internet can be hugely damaging to them,” she said.

“Phoebe took a drastic step within a very short space of time but it appeared to be a particularly vicious campaign,” said Dr O’Moore.

“In Phoebe’s school some of the staff were aware of the bullying but did not take action. That indicates that the school did not have a strict anti-bullying policy or were failing to implement it.”

Dr O’Moore said some adults still believed that bullying was a normal part of growing up when it should be totally unacceptable.

“Young people will feel they have a licence to bully if the message is not coming loud and clear from the school and home that such behaviour is wrong.”

She pointed out that the US state where Phoebe had lived briefly with her family had passed a law that all schools had to have an anti-bullying curriculum.

“We have had several suicide cases in Ireland but we can’t get the Department of Education and Science to wake up to the fact that every school should have a whole-school approach to bullying,” she said.

“You need to have awareness of the issue from top to bottom — all the layers within a school community should be subjected to a comprehensive awareness of bullying; that it was wrong and it was not going to be tolerated.”

And, she said, the consequences for bullying could be restorative, not just punitive.

While it was mandatory that all Irish schools had an anti-bullying policy, nobody was checking to see if the policy was implemented.

“If you were sitting at the other end of our anti-bullying centre’s helpline you will hear the number of parents ringing in who are just basically fobbed off by schools who go completely on the defensive,” she said.

“We should be creating a climate where children feel more encouraged to disclose, that it is responsible behaviour and not a sign of being a snitch or a rat,” she said.

“Silence is a perpetrator’s best friend and we are giving them that weapon by having a climate that abhors telling.”

“Parents can make a huge difference because they can open up conversations with their children but they need to know that they can go to the school with their concerns and have them followed up,” she said.

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