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Schools head defends response to bullying

Rebuts prosecutor on teen’s suicide

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / April 1, 2010

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South Hadley schools superintendent Gus Sayer, in his first extensive comments yesterday on the criminal charges brought against nine teenagers, defended school officials’ handling of the bullying that preceded student Phoebe Prince’s suicide.

Sayer rebutted prosecutors’ assertions that staff and administrators should have done more to intervene, saying that school officials became aware of the bullying of Prince only a week before the 15-year-old Irish immigrant hanged herself.

“That’s the first we learned of it, and we took very strong action,’’ he said. “We don’t have knowledge of any bullying or other incidents before that. No one turned their back on this. I think we did everything we could. If I thought I had done something wrong, I would resign. But I think we did our best.’’

Sayer’s remarks stand in sharp contrast to assertions by Northwest District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, who on Monday said a lengthy investigation concluded that some three months of harassment was “common knowledge’’ among students, and found that certain staff members and administrators were also aware of the bullying. She said their inaction in the face of those reports, while not criminal, was “troublesome.’’

Stopping short of criticizing Scheibel directly, Sayer said her findings “did not jibe’’ with the internal investigation conducted by the high school’s principal, Dan Smith, after Prince’s death.

“Based on our investigation, that wasn’t the case,’’ he said.

“He followed up every lead, but we didn’t get any other reports.’’

Scheibel last night took issue with Sayer’s comments.

“He is under fire and lashing out,’’ she said. “He does not have access to investigative material, so I don’t know how or why he can say what he said to the Globe. He doesn’t know what evidence we have.’’

Scheibel’s assertion that a number of adults were aware of the bullying, and that Prince’s mother had spoken with at least two staff members about the harassment, has fueled broad anger toward Sayer and other school officials, and sparked vocal calls for their resignations.

Even as anger and national criticism mounted since Scheibel’s announcement, Sayer, who was out of town on vacation, and other top administrators had remained silent on the issue of what they knew and when.

Yesterday, Sayer denied misleading the public, and said staff members would have intervened more forcefully had they known the extent of Prince’s troubles.

“It’s highly unlikely that people wouldn’t have taken action to help her,’’ he said. “If this were something that were widely known, or even known by just a few people, people would have stepped in. We would not let people get harmed.’’

Sayer, when asked how it was possible for faculty to be unaware of such extensive bullying, said harassment of the kind that haunted Prince almost always occurs out of adult view, and he bristled at the notion that adults looked the other way.

“The kids have a way of communicating with each other without us knowing about it,’’ he said. “They really have their own world.’’

About a week before she died, two incidents came to the attention of adults, Sayer said.

In one case, a faculty member overheard a group of students threatening Prince, who was not present.

In the second, a student walked into a classroom where Prince was, called her an “Irish slut,’’ and quickly departed.

Both incidents were immediately reported to the principal, Sayer said, and the students were “appropriately punished.’’

“That’s the only thing that was reported to faculty,’’ he said. “I think the principal did everything he could.’’

Sayer declined to say whether those students were suspended or whether they were at school on Jan. 14, when students harassed Prince throughout the day, even on her way home. A short time later, she was discovered dead.

Prince’s suicide has attracted international attention and has prompted widespread calls for stricter bullying laws and improved training.

Sayer also disputed Scheibel’s assertion that Prince’s mother had spoken with at least two staff members about the harassment. He said her mother had met with a school nurse and a guidance counselor but said bullying was not discussed. The conversations were not relayed to the school principal, he said.

Sayer would not describe the nature of the conversations but said the counselor, whom he described as well respected in her field, assured him yesterday they did not touch on bullying. Sayer said he had been told that Prince was extremely private and would have likely been reluctant to broach the topic.

Prince’s family had moved to South Hadley last fall to be near relatives and has moved again since the suicide. Family members have not spoken publicly since their daughter’s death.

Sayer called students’ behavior toward Prince “outrageous’’ but said he was surprised to learn that Scheibel drew such a strong connection between the bullying and Prince’s suicide.

“People have assumed the bullying caused her death,’’ he said. “But we don’t know why she took her own life. We think there were probably a number of possible causes.’’

Sayer said he spoke with Scheibel yesterday and planned to meet with her soon to discuss her findings. He said that the students she charged matched those school officials had previously identified as the offenders.

“That was my first reaction, was that her findings seemed to corroborate what the principal had found,’’ he said. “We did not see any new names, and I think we both came to the conclusion there had been some intense bullying.’’

He said the district has created an anti-bullying task force and plans to study its bullying policies closely.

Still, Sayer cautioned that bullying among teenagers is a longstanding reality that schools can never eradicate on their own.

“Everyone expects the schools to solve these problems, but we don’t have magic-bullet solutions to how kids behave,’’ he said.

Sayer said that he is not surprised school officials have been widely blamed in the aftermath of Prince’s death, but said the criticism is undeserved. Many faculty and students are dismayed by the negative perception, he said.

“Unfortunately, there’s the perception now that this is a school district that doesn’t care about its students,’’ he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.’’

Meanwhile, three of the nine teenagers — Sean Mulveyhill, Kayla Narey, and Austin Renaud — whom Scheibel charged in connection with Prince’s death are scheduled to appear in court Tuesday.

Kevin Cullen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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