Coverage of Phoebe Prince's bullying (ours included) has told the story of a clique of evil kids systematically tormenting an outcast. But now one reporter says this isn't accurate — and the bullies are victims too.
In an exhaustively researched and frankly pretty disturbing series of articles for Slate, Emily Bazelon questions the dominant narrative (again, promulgated in this space as elsewhere) of South Hadley High School mean girls and their erstwhile boyfriends hounding Phoebe Prince to death. Her basic points:
— Prince was depressed and troubled before the bullying started. She missed her absent father, engaged in self-mutilation, and had tried to commit suicide once before, in response to the breakup of a relationship (with senior Sean Mulveyhill, now charged with a civil rights violation and statutory rape in connection with Prince's death).
— Though it led to tragedy, the bullying Prince suffered was neither systematic nor organized (one teen actually stopped when school officials told her to, yet still faces criminal prosecution), and was not extraordinary for teens — several students called it "normal girl drama."
— The six students charged in Prince's death face prosecution not because their actions were so heinous, but because South Hadley has an overzealous district attorney with a history of seeking excessive punishment.
Of these, the last is the most upsetting. In 2007, South Hadley DA Elizabeth Scheibel slapped a 17-year-old kid who had Asperger's with charges carrying a maximum 60-year sentence, all for making YouTube videos of himself lighting explosives in a field (he was acquitted). And there's evidence, according to Bazelon, that Scheibel was punishing the bullying teens for their school's negligence. Bazelon writes, "Scheibel and her staff stepped in because they thought South Hadley High mishandled the lead-up to and the aftermath of Phoebe's death. Does that amount to penalizing teenagers because the adults failed to do so?" Maybe — especially if it's true that, as Bazelon says, their bullying was far less organized and far shorter in duration than Scheibel claims. And certainly the teens, who could face up to 10 years in prison, are being much more harshly punished now than they ever could have been by their school.
This new take on the Prince case exposes two serious and related problems. One is how catastrophically bad schools are at identifying and helping at-risk kids. Bazelon writes that Phoebe's mom told the school that Phoebe had suffered bullying in her native Ireland and was on antidepressants, but the school didn't mount any sort of concerted effort to help her, or notify administrators of her troubles — even after her first suicide attempt. The principal even said "she seemed to be doing pretty well when she came back" from that attempt, and didn't seem in need of further monitoring. But all the while, Prince was, according to Bazelon, "asking for help from older boys who seemed ill-equipped to provide it." In a heart-wrenching statement, one such boy told police,
She lifted up her hoodie and showed cuts on her chest above her bra and all the way down to her hips. I really didn't look too long. I found it to be very painful. This was someone I cared about and she was harming herself. Phoebe asked for help healing them. I told her to use Neosporin but I wasn't too sure.
And these boys lead into the second problem that contributed to Prince's death: slut-shaming. Phoebe's bullying back in Ireland also had to do with her seeing older boys, and an anonymous adult says of her troubles at South Hadley, "In the end you can call it bullying. But to the other kids, Phoebe was the one with the power. She was attracting guys away from relationships." Not all the boys Prince has been linked to were actually in relationships at the time she was seeing them, but regardless, the claim that she "attracted them away" is a bit slut-shaming in itself. A fellow student seems to understand the situation better: "Each person had his own conflict with Phoebe-that's what no one outside our school seems to understand. The girls found out she'd been with the boys, and true to high-school girls, they got mad at the girl instead of the boyfriend."
That's how society seems to work too, not just high-school girls, and it appears Prince got caught in a vicious cycle. No adults stepped in to help her, so she turned to older guys, which only made other girls madder. There's no excuse for the way some of these girls — and allegedly Sean Mulveyhill as well — treated Prince. Bazelon doesn't dispute that the teens called Prince a "whore" and a "cunt" and harassed her in school on at least two occasions. But it's not clear that this behavior deserves a ten-year prison sentence, especially since throwing the book at the teens may obscure the systemic problems that led to Prince's death in the first place. Nothing Bazelon has uncovered excuses bullying — but it does expose how deeply incompetent schools are at protecting troubled kids and preventing slut-shaming, and how endemic such shaming is both here and, apparently, in Ireland. To pretend that Prince's death was solely caused by a few kids who were simply evil is to ignore these very serious problems — and potentially to keep other kids like Prince from getting the help they need.