Friend of Phoebe Prince Who Has Asperger's Says She's Taunted Too

Prince committed suicide in January 2010 after she was allegedly bullied.

ByEmily Friedman
January 18, 2011, 4:02 PM

Jan. 19, 2010 — -- A former friend of Phoebe Prince, the girl who hanged herself after she was allegedly bullied at her Boston area high school, now says that she too is being tormented by her peers so badly that she has considered suicide.

Payton Spinney, 16, and her mother, Jennifer Kalvinek, say that the teasing began when South Hadley High School did not deliver on a promise to provide special educational and psychological accommodations for Spinney, who has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism.

The school denies the allegations that the plan was never brought to fruition.

"The school never implemented the plan and as a result, Payton became depressed and suicidal. Kids tease her and taunt her," said Abigail Williams, Spinney's attorney.

"This is a school that had the obligation to accommodate her disability and just never did," said Williams. "And so when we're talking about Phoebe Prince and how things have changed, Payton is the poster child for someone who should not have fallen through the cracks."

Prince was a 15-year-old girl who had moved to the area from Ireland. She hanged herself Jan. 14, 2010 and her family blamed her death on teenagers at the school who bullied her relentlessly. Six teenagers from South Hadley High School are awaiting trial on felony charges in relation to her death.

Like Prince, Spinney recently moved to the area and had been friends with Prince. In addition, Spinney's family lives in a shelter for the homeless. Her lawyer claims she has been tormented, including having had food thrown at her.

The school, critics have charged, has done little to stop the alleged bullying or take actions that would help Spinney cope with the school.

"You'd think if there was one school system in America that's on high alert it would be this one," said Darby O'Brien, a parent in the school district who has been critical of South Hadley's response to bullying since Prince died.

According to Williams, the special education plan was supposed to give Spinney the opportunity to meet with a counselor for 30 minutes a week to discuss her interactions with other students and her coping mechanisms. Spinney's teachers were also supposed to sit her in a seat during class that would be exposed to minimal distractions and were instructed to give the sophomore extra time on tests and extra time on complex homework assignments, said Williams.

But Spinney has found herself a target, the lawyer said. Just last week, Spinney threatened to punch a child who was teasing her, said Williams.

"Spinney was sent home, but that was a hallmark of her Asperger's," she said. "She's never taken a punch at someone and she has since told me that she didn't actually intend on punching the kid. She just wanted him to get away from her."

"Maybe if we had done some work on her socialization, this wouldn't have happened," said Williams.

Phoebe Prince's Friend Claims She Is Bullied Too

Dr. Gus Sayer, the superintendent of the school, told ABC News that he did not have specific information on the plan, but knew that Spinney's family had some reservations about portions of it and refused to let it be enacted.

Additionally, Sayer said that the incident involving Spinney threatening another student was an "isolated incident."

"[Spinney] made a complaint that has been addressed. It was determined not to be bullying," said Sayer. "She was called a name in response to something she said and it wasn't nice for someone to call her a name, but it only becomes bullying when the person is persistent."

"In general, kids who are new to school have difficulties," he said. "It's easier for some kids than others."

Dan Smith, the principal of Spinney's school, declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations and referred all questions to Sayer.

Williams, who says that Spinney has had food thrown at her and been called names by her peers during her two years at South Hadley, wants to see the school put the plan in place to help her client.

"Our concern is not just that kids will be kids and kids are being mean, but that the school will take no action to protect them, and in this case a child with a disability," said Williams.

O'Brien, who owns a public relations firm, was first to contact Williams about Spinney's case.

According to O'Brien, who has become an outspoken critic of the school since Prince's death last year, the school has not done enough to prevent another tragedy from occurring.

"Payton was friendly with Prince. They were friends and in a lot of the same classes and got to know each other," said O'Brien. "Payton used to go home at night and say she was really worried about her friend from Ireland and she was concerned about her."

"Both these girls were new girls and my take on this now is if you're an outsider in South Hadley you're out of luck," he said. "All the outside kids who are not from the town are targets. This is bad [school] leadership."

"I think if you look the other way you're never going to see anything or change anything," said O'Brien. "You can have all the laws and an anti-bullying task force, but what it gets down to is if you see something you have to do something."

Massachusetts High School Deals With Bullying Again

"Now I'd say this tragedy involves eight people. You lost Phoebe Prince, the six kids charged and now Payton Spinney," he said.

Sayer says that accusations that the school has not changed much since Prince's January 2010 suicide are wrong, and that the school has made big strides to change the way they deal with bullying.

Last year, Massachusetts State Legislature also enacted an anti-bullying law which makes schools accountable in reporting incidents that occur between students.

"We've had an anti-bullying task force that has had an enormous amount of involvement, over 350 people, because they were concerned about what happened in our schools," he said. "What we observe is that it's improving the climate in the schools."

Sayer said that the school has received and investigated 75 reports of bullying since the start of the school year, and has improved the system it uses to do so.

"I think there is some belief that we are going to stop bullying, and that's very unrealistic, it exists in every school," said Sayer.

"But we've improved our procedures to responding to to concerns, our record keeping is better and we're doing a better job of contacting parents of bullies," he said. "Parents are alerted more quickly that their child is being bullied or is bullying some other kid."

"We used to do that, but not in every single case. We are now making better judgments."

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