Assigning Blame: The Case of Phoebe Prince

The Week has collected a variety of opinions on who’s to blame for the January suicide of high school student Phoebe Prince in Massachusetts. Prince, as you may remember, was the 15-year-old girl who had emigrated from Ireland with her mother. At her new school in South Hadley, Massachusetts, Prince was bullied for weeks and eventually committed suicide. Emily Bazelon at Slate reports that Prince was depressed and troubled before the bullying began and that not all of the accused kids were cruel to her. District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, according to Bazelon, has a reputation for excessive zeal.

My investigation into the events that gave rise to Phoebe’s death, based on extensive interviews and review of law enforcement records, reveals the uncomfortable fact that Phoebe helped set in motion the conflicts with other students that ended in them turning on her. Her death was tragic, and she shouldn’t have been bullied. But she was deeply troubled long before she ever met the six defendants. And her own behavior made other students understandably upset.

I’ve wrestled with how much of this information to publish. Phoebe’s family has suffered terribly. But when the D.A. charged kids with causing Phoebe’s death and threatened them with prison, she invited an inquiry into other potential causes. The whole story is a lot more complicated than anyone has publicly allowed for. The events that led to Phoebe’s death show how hard it is for kids, parents, and schools to cope with bullying, especially when the victim is psychologically vulnerable. The charges against the students show how strong the impulse is to point fingers after a suicide, how hard it is to assess blame fairly, and how ill-suited police and prosecutors can be to punishing bullies.

Anna North at Jezebel follows up on Bazelon’s reporting and asks:

Are the tormentors being punished for their own actions or for the school administrators’ failure to help Phoebe after her mom told them she “had suffered bullying in her native Ireland and was on antidepressants”?

On the other hand, Cahir O’Doherty at Irish Central, argues that the revelation of Prince’s earlier suicide attempt makes her tormentors more blameworthy, not less:

Aiming to bring new clarity to this tragic case, Bazelon’s revelations end up underlining its pathos. That Prince was vulnerable and emotionally unstable, there’s no doubt. But she was held solely accountable for dating boys attached to other girls whilst the boys themselves avoided all responsibility. Prince paid the price, they walked off Scott-free. That, in itself, is the proof of the brutal power imbalance that’s at the root of bullying.

In the end it comes down to this: either you believe that bullying is always potentially fatal or you don’t. If you do then the practitioners have a very grave case to answer. If you don’t then Phoebe Prince’s lonely death will remain a mystery to you, another one of those things you can shrug off as you consign a thousand others to the same lonely fate.

And Sierra at Strollerderby observes:

Bazelon sees a lot of shades of gray in this story, but from where I’m sitting it still looks like this group of popular kids bullied a young woman to death.

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