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Payment in school bullying revealed

South Hadley gave family $225,000

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / December 28, 2011
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The family of Phoebe Prince, the South Hadley teenager who took her life allegedly in response to a barrage of bullying, received $225,000 from the town and in exchange agreed not to sue the girl’s school district, according to a copy of the settlement disclosed yesterday.

The disclosure was made four days after a Hampshire Superior Court judge ruled in favor of a reporter who had filed a lawsuit demanding that the town release the record.

Town officials had fought the reporter’s initial requests, saying they violated a confidentiality agreement with Prince’s family, who had accused the school district of ignoring the teenager’s suffering.

Prince, a 15-year-old transfer student from Ireland, hanged herself in her home in January 2010. Her death led to a national outcry over bullying in schools.

Prince’s mother, Anne O’Brien, settled with the town in October 2010 because she wanted to avoid a trial. She feared a public legal proceeding would be painful for the family, which was still reeling from a news story that detailed Prince’s medical history, according to O’Brien’s brother Edward.

“My sister settled because she wanted this to stop,’’ Edward O’Brien said in a telephone interview from his New Hampshire home last night. “She needed to find some peace.’’

Prince’s parents had filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in July 2010, alleging that South Hadley public schools had failed to protect Prince from discrimination.

The complaint accused the district of creating an “intimidating, hostile, and sexually offensive educational environment,’’ according to the lawsuit demanding release of the records. It was filed early this month by Emily Bazelon, a reporter and editor for the online magazine Slate.

The parents withdrew the complaint in November 2010 after they reached an agreement with the town.

The amount of the settlement was not revealed.

Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Bazelon filed the lawsuit after she said the town denied her numerous requests for the settlement amount and details.

On Dec. 23, Judge Mary-Lou Rup ordered the town to release the settlement amount and details.

William Newman, director of the ACLU’s Western Massachusetts Legal Office in Northampton, represented Bazelon and called the decision a victory for the public.

“The public has a right to know this information,’’ he said. “The ACLU brought this lawsuit on behalf of Emily in order to vindicate that right. I think the court’s decision is a testament to the importance of transparency in the government.’’

Edward Ryan Jr., the town’s counsel, could not be reached for comment last night. Prince’s family did not fight Bazelon’s lawsuit.

“What I cared about in bringing this forward is setting a precedent that, in situations like this, the public’s right to know has to come first,’’ Bazelon said.

The three-page settlement reveals little beyond the amount given to Prince’s family, who agreed not to discuss the terms of the agreement.

The six students accused of tormenting Prince were charged with various crimes from harassment and stalking to statutory rape. The rape charge was dropped against one of the students, at the request of Prince’s family.

None of the other teenagers, who admitted to bullying Prince, received jail time. Prosecutors defended the plea deals and said the ordeal of being charged and of publicly admitting wrongdoing were powerful enough punishments.

Criticism against school district leaders was fierce and swift.

The school superintendent decided he would not seek a new contract and announced his retirement.

In May 2010, Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill into law that requires every school employee, including custodians and cafeteria workers, to report suspected bullying and requires principals to investigate each case. It also mandates antibullying training for faculty and students and requires that parents be informed of cases at school.

Bazelon wrote a series about the Prince case, questioning the decision by Northampton District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel to bring criminal charges against the teenagers accused of bullying Prince. In her series, she also disclosed details of Prince’s medical records.

Anne O’Brien, who is now in Ireland, hoped that by settling she would avoid more hurtful press, her brother said. Part of the settlement money, he said, went toward a scholarship fund made in Prince’s name at Van Sickle Middle School in Springfield, where O’Brien taught.

Edward O’Brien said his sister also used some of the money to pay for legal advice she sought about the release of her daughter’s medical history.

“It was hard,’’ Edward O’Brien said. “This was an amazing kid.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

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