THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Kevin Cullen

Grieving father seeks justice, not vengeance

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / August 1, 2010

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Jeremy Prince does not court publicity.

He and his wife, Anne O’Brien, want to let the criminal justice system run its course. Besides, they have enough on their plates: one of their daughters is dead, and the other one is living with the indelible image of finding her big sister hanging by the scarf she had given her for Christmas.

But things change, and Jeremy Prince was on the phone, from County Clare in the west of Ireland, where he works as a gardener, and where the verdant countryside that holds the earthly remains and the eternal spirit of his dead daughter, Phoebe, is helping to heal his living daughter Lauren.

He had talked to the woman from Slate a couple of days earlier, so now he was talking to me. The woman from Slate, a lawyer and writer named Emily Bazelon, has argued on that website that the six teenagers awaiting trial in connection with the bullying that authorities say led 15-year-old Phoebe to kill herself last January should not be prosecuted. She believes the teens are scapegoats who have already suffered enough by being thrown out of school and thrown to the wolves — that is, to a supposedly vengeful public. She says Northwestern District Attorney Betsy Scheibel has been overzealous in prosecuting them. And she has argued that Phoebe’s history of mental illness, including an alleged previous suicide attempt, is a mitigating circumstance.

Basically, that’s the defense strategy for the upcoming trials: Phoebe Prince was the author of her own demise. It’s a classic case of blaming the victim, as entirely predictable as it is despicable.

Jeremy Prince disagrees with Bazelon on all counts. He thinks Scheibel is setting an example that would not be necessary if the adults at South Hadley High School who were alerted to Phoebe’s vulnerability had intervened before it got to the point that Phoebe felt the only way out was to take her own life. He doesn’t buy the argument that the children are being punished for the sins of the adults. When it comes to the way Phoebe was hounded and not protected, there’s plenty of sin to go around.

Jeremy Prince believes there are adults at South Hadley High who failed his daughter miserably, and by extension the young people charged with bullying her. He said Phoebe did not share with him in Ireland or with her mother in South Hadley just how bad it was those final days.

“Phoebe’s perception, and I think it was the correct one, is that if she had told us, we would have been down at the school ranting and raving, but that the school would not do anything about it and it would actually get worse,’’ he said.

Anne O’Brien had, on more than one occasion, asked school officials to help Phoebe. Phoebe was new to the country, new to the school, and dating older boys had created all sorts of problems, earning her the enmity of various cliques.

“The whole culture was wrong at that school. The school turned a blind eye for administrative reasons,’’ Jeremy Prince said. “They closed ranks. The adults at the high school responded to this like administrators, not educators. Administrators minimize everything, they want as little hassle as possible. An educator would be setting an example.

“I think the district attorney is setting an example: this behavior will not be tolerated, it is against the law, and the law has consequences. The charges are warranted and should have been brought. That said, I would be opposed to the young people charged in this case being made an example of. There’s a big difference between setting an example and making an example of someone. I don’t want disproportionate punishment.’’

He doesn’t think the teens charged in the case should go to prison, as long as they acknowledge what they did to Phoebe and apologize for it.

“I hate the word bullying,’’ he said. “What they did to Phoebe was not bullying. Bullying is this word with benign, Victorian overtones. Do you know what the French call bullying? Persecution. It’s spelled the same, and it means the same. It’s easily defined as long-term harassment meant to injure or distress someone. That’s what was done to Phoebe.’’

Persecution demands prosecution, Jeremy Prince believes, but justice does not demand vengeance.

He thinks of Phoebe as gentle and fragile more than vulnerable.

“She was the type of child who would wake me in the middle of the night to put a spider out of her room rather than squash it dead,’’ he said. “As a person, she wasn’t that vulnerable. It was the environment of the school and the threats of physical violence. She was susceptible to that.’’

Jeremy Prince’s cellphone rang. It was Lauren, looking for a ride.

“I’ll be there in 10 minutes,’’ the father told his daughter.

He says Lauren has thrived since returning to Ireland, where the family had lived for 12 years, after Phoebe was born in Jeremy’s native England.

“She’s flying,’’ he said of Lauren.

He doesn’t know how long they’ll stay in Clare.

“We’ll play it by ear,’’ he said. “Lauren needs time here. I would very much like to come back to America at some point. We had a very bad experience, but we met an awful lot of good people there also.

“There’s something about Americans that is instantly likeable. They can genuinely feel and share other people’s pain. And they are not afraid to show that. It’s unique about America, and I think it’s something that’s quite admirable.’’

Some people were unspeakably cruel to his daughter. But empathy and sympathy and decency can swim an ocean. And heal scars, maybe even souls.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.