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Residents demand answers after S. Hadley bullying death

Say school officials not doing enough

By Kathleen Moore
Globe Correspondent / February 3, 2010

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SOUTH HADLEY - More than 100 residents confronted the town’s Select Board last night, demanding to know what the School Department is doing to stop the bullying that allegedly led a South Hadley High School freshman to kill herself last month.

Several residents questioned the actions of School Superintendent Gus Sayer, but a petition calling for his ouster was not mentioned during the hour-long public comment period that preceded the formal meeting.

Several residents have begun circulating the petition against the superintendent, and plan to present it to the School Committee this spring, before Sayer’s contract expires in May.

The student, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, is thought to have committed suicide after allegedly enduring online and in-school abuse from her classmates at South Hadley High. Immediately after her death, grief counselors were made available to staff and students at all of the district’s schools, but school administrators have not revealed the punishment handed out to Prince’s alleged bullies.

“They disciplined a couple of students a week before Phoebe Prince died, but, since then, you have a superintendent, a principal, and a school committee who have not addressed this issue,’’ said Darby O’Brien, whose daughter attends the high school. “They don’t have to wait for a criminal investigation. They can take action now, and they haven’t.’’

Select Board Chairman John Hine told the group gathered at Town Hall that he shared their concern but that his board does not have the power to discipline or fire School Department personnel. The School Committee holds that authority.

Police Chief David LaBrie told the crowd that he could not reveal details of the criminal investigation, adding that many of those being questioned are minors, whose privacy must be protected. He did acknowledge that cyber-bullying continues to plague other students in the school system.

“People who don’t have Web access have been told that their children’s pictures and addresses have been posted online with threatening messages,’’ he said. “I spoke to four or five today, who wanted to know what to do. We are addressing this every day.’’

Assistant School Superintendent Christine Sweklo said yesterday that the concerned residents are invited to join a district-wide antibullying task force that will be holding its first meeting on Feb. 23. She declined to comment on any punitive measures that may have been taken by Sayer or South Hadley High principal Daniel T. Smith.

Several residents said they were concerned because the alleged bullies have not been removed from the school.

“What sort of signal are we sending to our students if some of the bullies are still walking around acting proud?’’ said Kathleen M. Keane. “Whoever bullied her, or anyone else, should be held accountable.’’

Another resident, Lovelle Thomas, said she has deleted several menacing postings that the alleged bullies had recently put on Facebook.

“If they can do what they did and still make fun of her [Phoebe Prince], if they’re not bad, what are they?’’

For parents like O’Brien, however, the Feb. 23 meeting is too little, too late.

The School Department, he said, dropped the ball on the bullying issue by ignoring the recommendations of Barbara Coloroso, a specialist who visited the district last fall.

According to O’Brien, the district spent $9,000 to bring Coloroso in, but then failed to take any action on her recommendations. Among other things, Coloroso had stressed the importance of holding bullies publicly accountable. During her visit, she offered a free bullying workshop for parents, but the district failed to publicize it.

“They had the plan, and they sat on it,’’ O’Brien said. “And now we have kids in the high school who are afraid to speak up because the bullies are still there. Why should they speak up when they can see that nothing has been done to punish the bullies?’’

Many, like Donna Tower, urged their neighbors to remain focused on the problem, not the blame. “I only hope that we will not let the mob mentality take over,’’ she said. “We need answers, yes, but we also need to be a part of the solution.’’