Don Treeger  /  The Republican via AP
A vigil is held on Jan. 15 at the high school in South Hadley, Mass., for freshman Phoebe Prince, who had killed herself the previous day.
updated 3/30/2010 8:16:10 PM ET 2010-03-31T00:16:10

A gay teenager in New York wins $50,000 from a school district that failed to stop taunts about his sexual orientation. The Justice Department investigates complaints that administrators ignored racial bullying in a Philadelphia school.

And in Massachusetts, a 15-year-old girl hangs herself after she is mercilessly harassed for months — taunting and threats that school administrators knew about but did not stop.

Now, with nine students charged in the bullying of Phoebe Prince, who hanged herself at her family's home in January, questions have arisen about how accountable school officials should be for stopping bullying.

Barbara Coloroso, a nationally known anti-bullying consultant, had been contacted by South Hadley school officials months before Phoebe's death, after a young boy in nearby Springfield killed himself. She spent a day there in September, training teachers and administrators on how to recognize and deal with bullying.

Coloroso said school officials made mistakes by failing to stop the bullying and, after Phoebe hanged herself, by allowing at least some of the students involved to continue to attend classes and a school dance with no visible signs of discipline.

"The questions to ask are: Did they follow their own rules and did they keep Phoebe safe? Obviously not. And, did they deal effectively with the bullies? Obviously not," Coloroso told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Months of harassment
Authorities say Prince, who had recently emigrated from Ireland, endured months of verbal assaults and threats after she briefly dated a popular boy. She was harassed mostly in school, but also on Facebook and through other electronic forms.

District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said the inaction of school officials was troublesome but not criminal.

More than 40 states have anti-bullying laws that generally require schools to adopt a set of preventive policies. But Marlene Snyder of Clemson University's Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life said laws and policies don't necessarily help if schools don't follow through with intensive training for teachers and staff.

"In defense of teachers, very few of them have ever had training on bullying prevention, much less how to intervene without making the situation worse," she said. "Some people don't understand the dramatic and devastating effect that this kind of treatment can have on a child."

Settlement in N.Y.
In upstate New York, the Mohawk Central School District agreed Monday to do more to protect students from harassment as part of a settlement with a gay teenager who claimed he was relentlessly bullied.

The boy, described only as 15-year-old Jacob, now goes to another school, and his father said he hopes other districts take note of what happened in the working-class village.

"I wish some other schools would follow in the footsteps of this school and make changes," said Robert Sullivan, who has a different last name than Jacob. "A lot of schools are going through the same thing as this school."

In Georgia, 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera committed suicide at his Atlanta-area home last year after his parents say he was repeatedly tormented in school. School officials denied it and an independent review found bullying was not a factor, but his family rejects that conclusion.

And at South Philadelphia High School, Asian students say they've endured relentless bullying and racial epithets by black students while school officials ignored their complaints. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a complaint in January with the U.S. Justice Department.

In the Massachusetts case, school officials had previously said they did not know about Phoebe's harassment before she committed suicide. They have said some students accused of taking part in the bullying have been disciplined and will not return to class.

Administrators and School Committee members did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment. In a statement, Assistant Superintendent Christine Swelko said "a small group of students" was removed from school Tuesday. She would not say how many or whether they had been expelled.

She said the school, through its anti-bullying task force, was continuing to review its policies and programs.

Legal experts said it would be difficult to charge school officials criminally, but said Prince's family could have a cause of action in a wrongful death lawsuit.

"If the mother told more than one school official what was going on, it would come down to what she actually told them, and then if they did nothing about it and something bad happened as a result, that is a basic argument that the school was indifferent and could be legally liable for what went on," said Peter Hahn, a Newton attorney who specializes in education and juvenile law.

Massachusetts is one of only seven states without a specific law targeting school bullying, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Legislature cited Phoebe's death and the apparent suicide of 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover of Springfield last year in passing anti-bullying legislation earlier this month. The Legislature still needs to approve a final version before sending it to the governor.

Many parents complain that the laws aren't enforced consistently and that school officials don't do enough to remove bullies from schools.

Ted Mathews, a South Hadley parent who said his 13-year-old son was harassed in school several years ago, said he doesn't understand why school administrators did not intervene.

"Bottom line is, they could have done something, but they didn't," Mathews said. "My personal belief is if you're going to hold these kids accountable, then you've got to hold these adults accountable, too. Everybody's got an excuse, but it doesn't bring her back."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Suicide provoked?

  1. Closed captioning of: Suicide provoked?

    >>> case where a teenager took her own life after months of bullying and harassment.

    >> reporter: south hadley high school is in a massachusetts college smunt known for good schools. but today people are asking, why the school failed to protect one student from being tormented to death by several others. 15-year-old phoebe prince, an irish immigrant , was found by her younger sister hanged in a closet in her home. she committed suicide after months of what prosecutors called unrelenting bullying that became intolerable.

    >> from information known to investigators thus far, it appears that phoebe 's death on january 14th followed a torturous day for her in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse .

    >> reporter: now, nearly 11 weeks after her death, nine teenagers, including a group of girls, have been indicted and charged with stalking, criminal harassment, and violating phoebe 's civil rights . two boys face charges of statutory rape . on the day of her death, authorities say the bullying followed phoebe from the halls of the high school and into the streets as she made her way home. at one point a can was thrown at her from a car. it may have been the final straw . authorities speculate phoebe was targeted because she was the pretty new girl at school . she had gotten attention from a popular football player and one of the alleged tormenters was jealous. despite pleas of help from phoebe 's parents, she was harassed on facebook, her cell phone , but mostly at school .

    >> phoebe 's harassment was common knowledge to most of the south hadley high school student body . the investigation has revealed that certain faculty, staff and administrators of the high school also were alerted to the harassment of phoebe prince before her death.

    >> reporter: experts say it's painfully familiar.

    >> we consider it a right of passage, and everyone says it's just bullying, it's words, who cares if somebody shoves you into the locker. but we're now seeing more and more teens who are taking their lives as bullying becomes constant.

    >> reporter: sadly, even after her death, officials say phoebe 's bullies persisted sending disparaging remarks to her facebook memorial page. an unthinkable last torment. for "today," rehema ellis, nbc news, new york .

    >> dan abrams is nbc 's chief legal analyst and dr. susan lipkins is a bullying expert and the founder of realpsychology.com. i saw you both shaking your heads. it is just incredible what this case makes us feel. dan, how unusual are criminal charges like this in a case like this?

    >> pretty unusual. generally this is dealt with in civil courts , meaning generally even when something this horrible happens, the family will sue the school or the individuals, et cetera . what this prosecutor is saying effectively is this conduct was so egregious that they went in to the criminal code effectively and figured out what possible crimes could they charge any of these teens with, and they went through and they said, criminal harassment, stalking.

    >> violating of civil rights . two male teens have been charged with statutory rape . but does that mean if in fact they went into the statute to find if they could be charged with any possible crimes that it may be a fishing expedition to actually find them guilty?

    >> it is a fair question, except that prosecutorial discretion is pretty wide, meaning prosecutors have a lot of options as to what they can do and what they can't do. in this case the prosecutors decided we're going to go by the letter of the law . we are convinced that we'll be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt each and every one of these crimes. but with regard to the question of does this happen very often, even in this type of case, the answer is, no. definitely an aggressive prosecution here but not farfetched.

    >> talk about the psychology of this, susan . people might wonder what is going on in the mind of a young girl going through all of this and that makes her so vulnerable, especially when we find out that the school officials had been talked to by phoebe 's parents and the situation did not change.

    >> well, i think that we don't have a school system which really addresses bullying and from the top-down, all the way from the superintendent to the custodian and all the parents, all the faculty, and all the students are bystanders who can have the power to interconvenieintervene and change the system . we see there is an increase in the violence and sexuality of the bullying that's going on.

    >> i know, dan, that those in massachusetts , a law has come out of phoebe 's death and this law would require school officials to report what?

    >> remember, it came after the fact so they can't apply it now to this incident. what effectively it is saying is, if school officials know of bullying that could be criminal, meaning the very crimes we're talking about here, they're required legally now to report that to the authorities. a lot of people here are saying how did the authorities know? why did it take them so long to realize that this is a real problem? why did it take her death? what the legislature is saying is, we need to force the school official, not just ask them, not just request, but force them.

    >> that's just in massachusetts . susan , you say that bullying is on the rise. you also make a link to what seems to be an increase in our popular culture where sort of meanness, reality programs are everywhere you look, it is kind of okay, we shouldn't get ruffled when there is a degree of meanness. is this idea something -- is this the kind of fall-back that other states might want to consider?

    >> well, yes. i consider it vulture culture . we see that in the reality shows and a lot of television and media which is reflecting our reality that we're increasing people's -- the way that they react, meaning that we're actually showing them how to be demeaning and how to be degrading and how to bully. that's part of what the media is doing.

    >> are you saying this is causing a reason for the rise?

    >> i think the reflection back and forth, when you see it on " gossip girl " or " american idol ," we're sitting around with our parents and it is okay to be degrading, we are implying that it is okay.

    >> i think it is much more disconcerting what happened at the school than it is to sort of look at the media at large. i'm not saying that we can't and shouldn't, but the fact that school officials -- remember, some of this bullying occurred in front of people who worked at the school .

    >> but i would say, having -- and you know having covered these kinds of stories before, that this is not -- this has happened before .

    >> it has.

    >> that other school districts have witnessed and said, oh, these are just kids. they go on with their mission in life. so the question is, if parents aren't stopping bullying, because they feel it's helpless, and the school districts are not stopping bullying because they feel helpless, is it time this country has deeper laws? really makes it criminally liable to bully a child in school ?

    >> i think we'll see as we see more of these incidents, we'll see legislatures respond. that's what leads to changes in the law. it is events like this that spur legislatures to say we have to say, enough is enough.

    >> dan abrams , so much. susan , doctor, thank you so much

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