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Apr 13 2011

Dart Award Winner

A Tormenting Problem: An Exploration of New-Age Bullying

This series, spurred by the suicide of a Massachusetts teenager, explores the phenomenon of bullying from every angle, including the experiences of victims and the adults and institutions charged with protecting them.  Originally published in the Boston Globe throughout 2010.

Like a lot of kids her age, Phoebe Prince was a swan, always beautiful and sometimes awkward.

Last fall, she moved from Ireland into western Massachusetts, a new town, a new high school, a new country, a new culture. She was 15, when all that matters is being liked and wearing the right clothes and just fitting in.

She was a freshman and she had a brief fling with a senior, a football player, and for this she became the target of the Mean Girls, who decided then and there that Phoebe didn’t know her place and that Phoebe would pay.

Kids can be mean, but the Mean Girls took it to another level, according to students and parents. They followed Phoebe around, calling her a slut. When they wanted to be more specific, they called her an Irish slut.

The name-calling, the stalking, the intimidation was relentless.

Ten days ago, Phoebe was walking home from school when one of the Mean Girls drove by in a car. An insult and an energy drink can came flying out the car window in Phoebe’s direction.

Phoebe kept walking, past the abuse, past the can, past the white picket fence, into her house. Then she walked into a closet and hanged herself. Her 12-year-old sister found her.

You would think this would give the bullies who hounded Phoebe some pause. Instead, they went on Facebook and mocked her in death.

They told State Police detectives they did nothing wrong, had nothing to do with Phoebe killing herself.

And then they went right back to school and started badmouthing Phoebe.

They had a dance, a cotillion, at the Log Cabin in Holyoke two days after Phoebe’s sister found her in the closet, and some who were there say one of the Mean Girls bragged about how she played dumb with the detectives who questioned her.

Last week, one of the Springfield TV stations sent a crew to South Hadley High to talk to the kids.

One girl was interviewed on camera, and she said what was common knowledge: that bullies were stalking the corridors of South Hadley High.

As soon as the TV crew was out of sight, one of the Mean Girls came up and slammed the girl who had been interviewed against a locker and punched her in the head.

The Mean Girls are pretty, and popular, and play sports.

So far, they appear to be untouchable, too.

South Hadley is a nice, comfortable middle-class suburb that hugs the Connecticut River nearby and a certain attitude.

“Things like this aren’t supposed to happen in South Hadley,’’ said Darby O’Brien, a high school parent, wondering why the bullies who tormented Phoebe are still in school. “And so instead of confronting the evil among us, the reality that there are bullies roaming the corridors at South Hadley High, people are blaming the victim, looking for excuses why a 15-year-old girl would do this. People are in denial.’’

School officials say there are three investigations going on. They say these things take time.

That doesn’t explain why the Mean Girls who tortured Phoebe remain in school, defiant, unscathed.

“What kind of message does this send to the good kids?’’ O’Brien asked. “How many kids haven’t come forward to tell what they know because they see the bullies walking around untouched?’’

They were supposed to hold a big meeting on Tuesday to talk about all this, but now that’s off for a couple of weeks.

O’Brien is thinking about going to that meeting and suggesting that they have the kids who bullied Phoebe look at the autopsy photos.

“Let them see what a kid who hung herself looks like,’’ he said.

Last week, Phoebe was supposed to visit Ireland, where she grew up, and she was excited because she was going to see her father for the first time in months.

She did end up going back to Ireland after all, and when her father saw her she was in a casket.

Phoebe’s family decided to bury her in County Clare. They wanted an ocean between her and the people who hounded her to the grave.

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Kevin Cullen

  • Kevin Cullen is a metro columnist at The Boston Globe. He has been a reporter at The Globe since 1985, working as a law enforcement reporter, legal affairs correspondent, reporter-at-large and foreign correspondent.

Jenna Russell

  • Jenna Russell has been a reporter for The Boston Globe since 2000. She has covered higher education and has been a roving regional reporter in New England.

Sarah Schweitzer

  • Sarah Schweitzer has been a reporter for The Boston Globe for a decade. She has covered Boston City Hall, presidential elections, higher education, and roamed the New England countryside as a roving reporter.

Patricia Wen

  • Patricia Wen covers children and family issues for the metro section of The Boston Globe. A staff writer since 1986, she had previously worked on the education and health-science staff, as well as served for three years on the Globe’s Spotlight Team, the newspaper’s investigative reporting unit.

Bill Greene

  • Bill Greene has been a staff photographer with The Boston Globe for 25 years.

Suzanne Kreiter

  • Suzanne Kreiter has been a staff photographer at The Boston Globe since 1985. 

Aram Boghosian

  • Aram Boghosian is a photographer at The Boston Globe.

Kayana Szymczak

  • Kayana Szymczak is a freelance photographer based in Boston, MA.

Joanne Rathe

  • Joanne Rathe is a staff photographer at The Boston Globe.

Brendan Hoffman

  • Brendan Hoffman is a freelance photographer based in Washington, DC, where he covers news and politics for a variety of clients including the New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, and Getty Images.

Steven Wilmsen

  • Steven Wilmsen is enterprise editor on the Globe's Metro desk.

Lloyd Young

  • Lloyd Young is picture editor at The Boston Globe.

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