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Kevin Cullen

Actions not taken by peers could have saved young girl’s life

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / May 5, 2011

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Kayla Narey stood in a courtroom in Northampton, talking to a dead girl.

“I’m sorry for the unkind things I said about you,’’ Kayla said to Phoebe Prince, who killed herself 16 months ago.

Kayla and other kids made Phoebe’s life at South Hadley High School a living hell, bullying and shaming her to the point that Phoebe took a scarf that her little sister had given her for Christmas and hanged herself.

“I am immensely ashamed of myself,’’ Kayla said.

Since Phoebe’s suicide, we as a society have grown up a little when it comes to how we look at bullying, and Kayla has grown up enough to engage in some introspection.

“Phoebe,’’ she said, still talking to the dead girl, “I wish we could go back to December . . . 2009.’’

It was then that Phoebe approached Kayla, having found out that they had been dating the same two-timer: Sean Mulveyhill, the football star.

Phoebe had gone out with Sean, not knowing that Sean and Kayla were still an item, an on-again, off-again romance.

Phoebe did something unsolicited, brave, and considerate: She apologized to Kayla. They sat on a bench, the two girls used by the same boy, and they talked.

Kayla’s immediate reaction showed some insight. “I have more respect for you than for my boyfriend,’’ she told Phoebe.

Kayla then sent a text to Sean: “We’re done.’’

Oh, the what ifs. What if only Kayla’s emotions had not changed? What if, because of Phoebe’s overture, Kayla and Phoebe became friends? At the least, they could have become allies, part of a Second Girlfriends club, warning other girls about the cad who used them.

But Christmas vacation came, and Kayla was overtaken by, in her own words, “hurt, anger, and jealousy.’’ She still wanted Sean, and she wanted Phoebe to pay.

She started talking about Phoebe behind her back. It fed a wider conspiracy against Phoebe, a conspiracy that hounded and threatened her. It was in Sean’s interest to pit girl against girl, to isolate Phoebe, the outsider who moved there from Ireland only a few months earlier, and he did so with cynical gusto, enlisting others to do the dirty work.

He enlisted a girl named Ashley Longe, who seemed to relish hurling insults and, on the day Phoebe killed herself, an energy drink can at Phoebe.

Moments before that can came hurling out the window of a passing car, as Phoebe walked home to the house where she would hang herself, Kayla and Sean laughed after Ashley shouted abuse at Phoebe in the school library.

They laughed at Phoebe’s misery, her vulnerability, her humiliation. Kayla and Sean were the popular kids. They had the power.

One of Phoebe’s last text messages, read out by her mother, Anne O’Brien, in court, was foreboding: “I think Sean condoning this is one of the final nails in my coffin.’’

A few days later, Phoebe was in that coffin, and Anne O’Brien stared down at her beautiful girl, her beautiful Phoebe. She had to hold her. One more time.

“I lifted her from the coffin and held her for the very last time,’’ Anne O’Brien told the court. “My little girl, once so full of life, was now so cold.’’

Cold would be a good word to describe Sean Mulveyhill, the kid who could have nipped all this in the bud, had he been half the leader in the hallways that he was on the football field.

He took his punishment — if you can call probation and 100 hours of community service punishment — with the same lack of empathy that got him into trouble in the first place. He said nothing about Phoebe. He said nothing to her mother.

Kayla got the same punishment, but wept. Maybe she was crying for herself. Maybe she was crying for Phoebe. Maybe she was crying for all of us.

“I’m sorry, Phoebe,’’ she said, still talking to the dead girl. “I allowed my emotions to spiral into acts of unkindness.’’

The what-ifs weren’t the only questions yesterday. O’Brien asked a question that hung in the air, like Phoebe’s spirit.

“How,’’ O’Brien asked, “do you measure a future lost?’’

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