A Tormenting Problem: An Exploration of New-Age Bullying

Back in September, the town of South Hadley brought in Barbara Coloroso to talk to parents, teachers, and administrators about how to combat bullying in the schools.

Coloroso knows as much about the subject as anyone. She was brought into Columbine after two kids who were bullied decided to get even with guns. She was brought into the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota after a 16-year-old shot seven people dead at the high school where he was bullied.

And she was brought into South Hadley, ahead of the curve, ahead of a tragedy, five months before Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old freshman at South Hadley High, hanged herself after being tormented by a group of girls who just wouldn’t leave her alone.

“The night before I did the in-service session for teachers and administrators last September, we had an evening session for parents. I think there were about 10 parents there,’’ she said.

Last week, the South Hadley mother who had first reached out to Coloroso reached out again: Could you please come back? Coloroso was in Toronto, about to fly home to Denver.

But she changed flights and came back to South Hadley, on her own dime, because she wanted to help, and wanted to see if the schools had been able to implement what she recommended last fall.

On Wednesday night, she found 300 parents facing the School Committee in the auditorium where she had spoken to mostly empty seats five months before. Some of the parents were angry, not just because a 15-year-old girl was dead, but because their kids had been bullied, too, and the official response was muddled at best. Some parents said their complaints were ignored.

On Wednesday night, it was South Hadley. But Coloroso said it could have been any school system in America. Every school has the problem, but some handle it better than others.

Earlier on Wednesday, Coloroso talked to the students in two separate sessions because they couldn’t all fit in the auditorium.

“The kids were frustrated,’’ she said. “They wanted to know what could have been done to prevent Phoebe’s death. It appeared to them that nothing was being done.’’

Administrators told Coloroso their hands were tied, that law enforcement officials told them not to move against suspected bullies who may have driven Phoebe over the edge. But she reviewed where the schools had gone since September, and her assessment was that the elementary schools had implemented her recommendations, and the middle school is getting there.

“The one I felt was unsatisfactory was the high school,’’ Coloroso said. “They said they had a warning and suspension policy in place. But it was nebulous. And the policy didn’t include cyberbullying.’’

Phoebe, who moved to South Hadley from Ireland just weeks before school started, became a target after she dated a senior, a football player, and the coarse words and sneering insults that followed her around the school corridors were only part of the story. Cruel text messages inundated her cellphone. Internet postings followed her home. The torment was born in school but invaded her private space to the point that she had no respite.

“What the community, and even more so the students, needs is a strong antibullying policy that explicitly explains what it is. And it has to include cyberbullying and all forms of hazing,’’ Coloroso said. “Secondly, there’s got to be a procedure in place to determine how they handle the bully, how they protect the target, and what they are going to do with any bystander who may have contributed to this mess and protect them if they are a witness. They don’t have that yet.’’

Coloroso was not surprised by the background music she was hearing: that there may have been other issues at play, any number of things that could have steered Phoebe toward despair and then the noose. It’s called blaming the victim.

“I don’t want to hear that Phoebe had problems, that she and other girls were in a conflict over a boy,’’ Coloroso said. “Calling someone an Irish slut is not a conflict. It’s bullying. You resolve conflict. You stop bullying.’’

When the bullies called Phoebe an Irish slut and texted her messages saying the same, they committed federal hate crimes, Coloroso said.

“Something should have been done right then and there,’’ she said.

Of all the cases she has examined, Coloroso said Phoebe’s most resembles that of Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Canadian girl who before hanging herself left behind her cellphone, which helped the police charge three girls with bullying her.

Phoebe left behind her cellphone, too, and it was fully charged.

On Friday, I called the office of Gus Sayer, the superintendent of schools in South Hadley, to get his reaction to Coloroso’s postmortem. A secretary told me he wasn’t in, and that he wasn’t expected to be in the rest of the day.

Somebody in a position to know told me Sayer left the state on Thursday, so I asked, “Is Mr. Sayer out of state?’’

“I’m not going to give out any information on that,’’ the secretary said.

Apparently, there was something more pressing out of town than a dead girl in town.