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Principal in Phoebe Prince suicide case says he will retire

Asserts decision unrelated to death

By Travis Andersen
Globe Staff / February 24, 2011

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The principal of South Hadley High School, under fire for his handling of the alleged bullying that drove 15-year-old Phoebe Prince to commit suicide last year, is retiring, he confirmed yesterday.

Daniel Smith, who has served as principal for 11 years and has worked in the district for 33, will step down at the end of the academic year, he said in a statement.

“I understand there is some speculation as to whether my retirement is at all related to the Prince tragedy,’’ Smith said. “I can unequivocally state that my retirement decision is not related in any way.’’

Smith said the timing is right because he is eligible to retire and also because stepping down in June will give the new principal a chance to take the helm as the school embarks on a two-year self-study to assess strengths and weaknesses. He said that would be “most beneficial’’ to the new leader.

School Superintendent Gus Sayer praised Smith last night in an e-mail.

“Dan has been an outstanding principal for South Hadley High School, who is widely respected for his leadership skills and his caring for the young people in our town,’’ Sayer said, adding that Smith has spearheaded several important initiatives at the school. Those initiatives include a student adviser program and the expansion of Advanced Placement offerings, he said.

School Committee chair JoAnn Jordan also had kind words for Smith last night.

“He is an exceptional person who has demonstrated over and over that his top priority has always been the students,’’ she said. “Like many others in town, I will miss him.’’

In March, Elizabeth D. Scheibel, the longtime Northwestern district attorney who stepped down in January, said the alleged bullying of Prince was “common knowledge’’ among the student body and was reported to school administrators. Sayer said officials took strong action as soon as they learned of the bullying.

Prince hanged herself at her home on Jan. 14, 2010. Six teenagers are facing criminal charges stemming from the alleged harassment.

The case has prompted some in the town to call on Smith and Sayer to resign, though both officials also have support in the community.

Prince’s suicide and a separate case in which an 11-year-old boy killed himself after being bullied in Springfield have spurred legislative action.

In May, Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill into law that requires every school employee, including custodians and cafeteria workers, to report incidents of suspected bullying and requires that principals investigate each case. The bill also mandates antibullying training, for faculty as well as students, and requires that parents be informed of incidents at school, among other conditions.

Darby O’Brien, a whistleblower in the Prince case whose stepdaughter graduated from South Hadley High last spring, said in a phone interview that Smith’s departure is long overdue.

“Dan Smith was responsible for running that school and keeping kids safe, and he failed,’’ said O’Brien, who is a party to a pending lawsuit alleging that the School Committee violated the state open meeting law last year by voting in a closed executive session to renew Sayer’s contract.

O’Brien also reiterated his long-standing criticism of the superintendent last night.

“Gus Sayer runs the show, and I think it’s pretty obvious that he’s clueless and just hasn’t come through, either, and I think it’s time for him to go,’’ he said.

O’Brien said local officials have done nothing to hold school authorities accountable for the well-being of students at the high school. He pointed to a Globe report last month in which a parent of a 16-year-old sophomore with a developmental disorder said she told the school her daughter was being bullied, and nothing was done.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com.