School bullies face criminal charges after death of teenage girl

When Phoebe Prince took her own life in January, it seems unlikely that the high school freshman knew the sort of effect her decision would have - not only on her friends, family and tormentors, but on the state of Massachusetts as well.

Prince's case may send a strong message across the United States. Civil rights activists are keeping a close eye on the trial, in which five teenagers accused of bullying the Irish immigrant face charges of civil rights violations. Although this is not the first time a case of bullying has drawn criminal charges, it is one of the few rare cases, said Robert O Trestan, a civil rights lawyer with the Anti-Defamation League.

"One of the things this case does is raise the profile of bullying in schools," Mr Trestan said from New York. "The criminal prosecution is a clear sign that no one is exempt from being charged with a criminal violation." Prince, 15, was found dead, hanging in a stairwell in her home in South Hadley on January 14. According to court documents filed in juvenile court in Hampshire County, on the day of her death she was the target of sexually and ethnically degrading comments from three of the defendants while in the South Hadley High School library.

On her way home that day, she had a bottle thrown at her from a car in which three of the defendants were believed to be passengers. She was discovered just hours later by a relative. According to local media, prosectors said Prince's last day alive was a snapshot of the three months of abuse she endured after moving from County Clare, in Ireland, to South Hadley, a bucolic college town about 140km west of Boston.

"The investigation revealed relentless activity directed towards Phoebe, designed to humiliate her and to make it impossible for her to remain at school. The bullying, for her, became intolerable," Elizabeth Scheibel, the north-western district attorney, was quoted as saying at a press conference by The Republican newspaper in nearby Springfield. Witnesses alleged that Prince's reactions to the bullying ranged from "fear and apprehension to crying" and interfered with Prince receiving an education, according to court documents. The documents also state Prince was subjected to bullying on Facebook.

Those facing civil rights violations in Hampshire Superior Court are Sean Mulveyhill and Kayla Narey., both 17, from South Hadley. They were charged in April and are expected to be in court in September for a pre-trial hearing. No date has been set for a trial. Three South Hadley 16-year-olds were also charged with civil rights violations in juvenile court. They are expected back in court in July for a pre-trial hearing.

A sixth teenager, Austin Renaud, 18, has been charged in the case, although he does not face civil rights violations. He has been charged with statutory rape. Mr Mulveyhill is also charged with statutory rape. The high school has formed an anti-bullying task force in response to Prince's death and on May 3, Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, signed into a law that anti-bullying legislation requires all school officials to notify police if bullying occurs in schools. According to a bullying watchdog website, there are 42 states with similar laws; Wisconsin and Michigan currently have bills pending.

"When civil rights have been violated, it doesn't just impact the victims, but the community is impacted as well," Mr Trestan said. "Part of the healing process is making these important changes." While bullying is nothing new to the schoolyard, the type of bullying has changed. The use of the internet has allowed bullies, once restricted to face-to-face confrontation or gossip, to anonymously target their victims anywhere and during all waking hours, according to Anthony Wolf, a child psychologist in western Massachusetts and a columnist for Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper. He has also published several books on child development.

"A lot of bullying relied on physical intimidation, but now it includes much verbal nastiness - nasty rumours, insults, threats, veiled and not so veiled - anything that will seriously humiliate the victim as they can do it over the internet," Mr Wolf said. Prolonged bullying can have a wide range of effects on its victims, including depression, anxiety, social withdrawal and poor performance in school.

"Probably the biggest overall negative effect from bullying on a child's development is that it can cause children to pull into themselves," he said. "They reach out less and participate in the world around them and are potentially more depressed and anxious. Rather than explore, take chances, it gets in the way of them having richer, fuller lives." To effectively prevent bullying, Mr Wolf said, schools must have a programme in place that fosters disinterested students who are willing to confront the bully and support the victim. Teachers also need to be sensitive to the situation and intervene. Parents of victims, he said, should encourage their children to let them know it is happening, intervene with school officials or with the parents of the bully and, if all options are exhausted, take action to change the situation, which may mean changing schools.

"Parents need to stay on top of it," Mr Wolf said. "Be supportive of their own kid, but also let their child know that they do not have to try to cope with it all on their own."

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