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9 teens charged in girl’s bullying

S. Hadley school’s officials faulted for not halting abuse before her suicide

By Peter Schworm and Brian Ballou
Globe Staff / March 30, 2010

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NORTHAMPTON — With sharp words and a strikingly aggressive prosecutorial stance, authorities yesterday spelled out a litany of charges against nine teenagers accused of subjecting 15-year-old South Hadley student Phoebe Prince to months of tortuous harassment before she hanged herself in a stairwell at home.

Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, who outlined the charges, also faulted officials at South Hadley High School, saying her investigation determined the girl’s harassment had been “common knowledge,’’ contradicting administrators’ previous assertions that they had been unaware of problems until after her death.

Scheibel described in painful detail Prince’s last day at school, saying that her investigation found the Irish immigrant was taunted in the hallways and bombarded with vulgar insults. As she studied in the library during lunch, the accused students allegedly hounded her openly while other students and a teacher looked on. The witnesses alerted school administrators only after her death.

“It appears that Phoebe’s death on Jan. 14 followed a tortuous day for her, in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse,’’ Scheibel said. “The events were not isolated, but the culmination of a nearly-three month campaign of verbally assaultive behavior and threats of physical harm.’’

The nature of the charges — ranging from criminal harassment and civil rights violations to stalking and statutory rape — hints at a forceful strategy of taking many legal avenues in the pur suit of convictions, legal specialists said.

“It’s an aggressive approach,’’ said Robert Griffin, a former Suffolk County prosecutor. “They are casting a wide net.’’

Prince was a freshman who had moved to Massachusetts from Ireland, and her suicide sparked statewide horror and prompted intense public debate on bullying. It also prompted an antibullying measure that has been approved by both chambers of the state Legislature.

In South Hadley, school officials were the target of intense criticism, and Scheibel’s assertions yesterday infuriated some parents anew, a sign that pressure could mount on School Committee members to take action against administrators at South Hadley High.

“They knew all along and did nothing to prevent it,’’ resident Donna Tower said of administrators. “There needs to be justice for Phoebe Prince.’’

School Committee members and Superintendent Gus Sayer did not return phone calls yesterday.

South Hadley High administrators had previously said they were unaware of the bullying until after Prince’s death, but Scheibel said yesterday that students and some teachers and administrators knew of the harassment of Prince and that Prince’s mother had spoken with at least two school staff members about her daughter’s troubles.

The vast majority of the bullying took place during the school day, Scheibel said, and online harassment played a secondary role.

The school’s inaction was “troublesome’’ but did not constitute criminal behavior, Scheibel said. A lack of “understanding of harassment associated with teen dating relationships’’ was prevalent at the school, she added.

Sayer’s office issued a statement yesterday saying officials had not been briefed by Scheibel on the results of the investigation.

“Once we are able to obtain this information we will be able to make a more comprehensive statement and possibly take further action against the students still attending South Hadley High School,’’ said the statement issued by assistant superintendent Christine Sweklo.

Prosecutors accused two boys of statutory rape, and three girls of violating Prince’s civil rights and criminal harassment. They declined to provide specifics, but said students targeted Prince in retaliation for briefly dating a male student and continued their harassment weeks after the pair’s relationship ended.

“The investigation revealed relentless activities directed toward Phoebe, designed to humiliate her, and to make it impossible for her to stay at school,’’ Scheibel said. “The bullying, for her, was intolerable.’’

Charged as adults were: Sean Mulveyhill, 17, of South Hadley, with statutory rape, violation of civil rights, criminal harassment, and disturbance of a school assembly; Austin Renaud, 18, of Springfield, statutory rape; Kayla Narey, 17, of South Hadley, violation of civil rights, criminal harassment, and disturbance of a school assembly; Ashley Longe, 16, of South Hadley, violation of civil rights with bodily injury resulting.

Flannery Mullins, 16, of South Hadley, and Sharon Chanon Velazquez, 16, of South Hadley, were also charged as adults with violation of civil rights and stalking.

Three juveniles, all females from South Hadley, are also facing charges. Two complaints charge one count each of violation of civil rights, criminal harassment, and disturbance of a school assembly. One complaint charges one count each of violation of civil rights, assault by means of a dangerous weapon (bottle, can, or beverage container), and disturbance of a school assembly.

The defendants will be summoned to court for arraignment in the coming weeks. Scheibel said the case is still under investigation, and there may be additional charges.

Parents said several students have either been expelled or have left school. Several of the accused teenagers still attend South Hadley High School, Scheibel said.

Many parents applauded the charges, saying it sent a clear message that bullies will be punished.

“We have to make an example out of these kids,’’ said Mitchell Brouillard, who said his daughter has been bullied at the high school. “They have to be held accountable. This could have been my daughter.’’

At South Hadley High yesterday, several students said the school administration has focused on eliminating bullying since Prince’s death.

Ashley Dunn, 16, a sophomore, said she recently told school officials she had been bullied, and that they had found a way to solve the problem.

“I felt small, and I cried every night,’’ she said. “It didn’t get to the point where I thought about suicide, but it was pretty bad. It was handled very well. The school did counseling and mediation.’’ Now, she said, she and the bully “are on better terms.’’

John Ellement of the Globe staff and correspondent Shana Wickett contributed to this report.