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Kevin Cullen

Kids pay, adults get away

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / April 4, 2010

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Last week, Northwestern District Attorney Betsy Scheibel announced that nine teenagers who tormented 15-year-old Phoebe Prince to the point that she hanged herself will be prosecuted on a host of charges that amount to the biggest school bullying case in US history.

So it looks like the kids will be held accountable but the adults will not.

On the face of it, the law has nothing to say about the parents of the bullies, or adults in the school who either looked the other way or were so clueless they didn’t see or know what students say was common knowledge — that Phoebe was being harassed relentlessly by a group of older students who thought the pretty newcomer from Ireland didn’t know her place in the status-obsessed, stratified subculture of an American high school.

And while we hold parents accountable if their kids throw a keg party on the back deck, there’s no law that says it’s illegal to send kids bent on cruelty off to school.

Scheibel said she didn’t think the inaction of teachers, staff, and administrators at South Hadley High rose to the level of criminal behavior. But she said some adults at the school were aware or made aware of the bullying and didn’t protect Phoebe.

Gus Sayer, the school superintendent in South Hadley, takes great exception to this. He says his staff has been unfairly accused of negligence.

Scheibel told me Sayer initially refuted her charges without having read them. They had what could be charitably described as a heated conversation.

“He doesn’t know what we have in our investigative files,’’ she said. “He’s lashing out because he’s under fire.’’

That’s putting it charitably, too.

A lot of people think Sayer should resign, but he’s not one of them.

“I’d resign if I did something wrong,’’ he told me. “But I didn’t.’’

He said he and high school principal Dan Smith are being second-guessed by those who don’t have a clue what it’s like to run a school or school system, and by those with the benefit of hindsight.

I asked him if, with the benefit of hindsight, he would do anything different and he said just one thing: He would have formed an anti-bullying task force earlier.

He said he has the support of the School Committee, and that Dan Smith has his support. So no one’s going anywhere.

“If the School Committee asked me to resign,’’ Sayer said, “I’d consider it.’’

But he said they’d have a hard time replacing him. He said when he retired as superintendent in Amherst in 2004, they had trouble finding a replacement. He said South Hadley hired him a few months after his retirement because they had such trouble finding a superintendent.

He also said he has received on average 100 e-mails each day from people who, in vulgar, hateful terms, are calling for his resignation, or worse.

“They’re all from out of state,’’ he said.

He said only a handful of parents in his town are demanding his or Smith’s resignation. Sayer said 90 percent of the parents who have had dealings with him as superintendent in South Hadley for the last six years, and in neighboring Amherst for many years before that, were satisfied.

I must have been talking to the other 10 percent, because they describe Sayer as someone who is very dismissive of anyone who challenges him or his staff.

Fifteen years ago, Rashna Singh sat down with Sayer after a teacher in Amherst had been verbally abusive to her son.

“Sayer disregarded our heartfelt concerns and defended the teacher and, more infuriatingly, actually went on to praise the teacher,’’ she said. “He was completely dismissive of our complaint. I see a similar response by him in this tragic case of the poor girl who killed herself.’’

Some people in South Hadley were surprised Sayer was hired in 2004 in the first place. Two years earlier, Sayer had to get rid of Amherst Regional High School principal Stephen Myers, whom he had enthusiastically recruited from Denver, after Myers sexually harassed a freshman boy. Sayer said Myers had hid his fondness for boys until the freshman’s mother complained.

“As soon as I found that out, Myers was gone,’’ Sayer said.

But the mother of the boy who was invited into Myers’s hot tub was not satisfied with the way Sayer handled the case.

“Look,’’ Sayer said, “I do the best I can. Sometimes parents aren’t happy. I do the best I can.’’

For all the talk about the new anti-bullying bill that is expected to be signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick any day now, Scheibel was able to build her case with existing laws.

Scheibel said the new law would not have changed the way she prosecuted the case. But she also said it’s possible that the mandatory training and reporting part of the bill might have produced an adult inside the high school who would have intervened before Jan. 14, when Phoebe saw no way out. This case cried out for someone who could see what all the kids at South Hadley High saw, and felt legally compelled to report it.

“We’ll never know,’’ Betsy Scheibel said. “We’ll just never know.’’

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

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