New Developments Raise New Questions in Suicide of Phoebe Prince

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It has been almost a year since 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, Mass., hanged herself in the stairwell of her family's home -- a victim of alleged bullying and harassment by her classmates.

But two developments, made public Tuesday, cast a new light on the South Hadley School Department's position that it bears no responsibility for Phoebe Prince's death.

In July, lawyers for Anne O'Brien Prince and William Allan Jeremy Prince, Phoebe's parents, filed a discrimination suit with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, citing "sexual harassment in an educational institution" as the basis for the complaint that named South Hadley Public Schools; Superintendent Gus Sayer; Principal Dan Smith; Vice Principal William Evans and other members of the school staff, stating that they "failed to adequately address or remedy the harassing conduct of the school's students, which had the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with Phoebe's education by creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating and sexually offensive educational environment."

The complaint also cited several specific incidents in which Vice Principal William Evans learned of multiple acts of bullying and failed to follow school disciplinary procedures. One example occurred Jan. 8, 2010, by a student referred to as "Student B, who admitted to verbally assaulting and threatening Phoebe and calling her vulgar and offensive epithets. Despite the admission, the complaint alleges neither "Mr. Evans nor any other administrator contacted Phoebe's parents to address the harassing conduct."

The six-page document, full of graphic detail, was signed by Phoebe's mother, Anne O'Brien.

In a surprising move, however, the MCAD complaint was withdrawn Nov. 5, because the family had reached a settlement with the school district.

Is the School to Blame?

South Hadley School Superintendent Gus Sayer is on a two-week medical leave, according to his office, and was not available to comment. Sayer has always maintained that school officials acted in accordance with school policy in the case of Phoebe Prince, and could not have prevented her death.

Sayer's steadfast defense of the school system's handling of the Prince case are what make this quick settlement so surprising.

In another potentially troubling development for the South Hadley School District, the Boston Globe reported Tuesday that federal prosecutors are now investigating the school's handling of the case. In an e-mail exchange, Robert Leonard, the Prince family's lawyer, would not talk about the MCAD settlement, nor would he confirm or deny the existence of a federal investigation.

If true, however, a federal investigation could finally answer some questions about how much school officials knew about the alleged bullying and what they did or did not do to try to stop it.

As for the six former South Hadley High School students charged with various offenses related to bullying Prince, the legal maneuvering continues, with pretrial motions and new court dates in the works.

Prosecutor Elizabeth Dunphy Farris recently met with lawyers for defendants Ashley Longe, Flannery Mullins and Sharon Velazquez to iron out some evidentiary issues, and both sides are scheduled to pick a trial date Jan. 21.

Attorneys for defendants Austin Renaud, Kayla Narey and Sean Mulveyhill are scheduled to head back to court in the new year.

A 16th Birthday Missed

One potentially large issue looms over the trials of the six defendants. Northwestern District Attorney Betsy Scheibel, who brought the charges against the "South Hadley Six," is stepping down, and there has been a lot of talk that incoming District Attorney David Sullivan may be inclined to drop the charges against some or all of the students.

Legal maneuvering and surprises aside, on Nov. 24, on what would have been Phoebe Prince's 16th birthday, a group of parents placed an ad in a local paper that read "A light lost but not forgotten. Phoebe Nora Mary Prince. On this, her 16th birthday, we offer our love and support to Phoebe's family and friends."

It's clear that as Jan. 14, the one-year anniversary of Phoebe Prince's death, approaches, despite what happens in courtrooms, there is still some healing to be done in the Massachusetts town of South Hadley.