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Bullied girl's suicide has ongoing impact

TODAY's Ann Curry talks with Sharon Chanon Valazquez, one of the teens charged with criminal harassment of Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide on Jan. 14, 2010.

Parents pursuing justice for the suicide death of their 15-year-old daughter in Massachusetts settled with the school district for $225,000, newly released court documents say. The documents were unsealed after a Slate reporter pursued the matter in court.

The report marks an end to legal proceedings in the case of Phoebe Prince, who hanged herself after months of persistent bullying by other students. Prince's case captured headlines not only in the United States but dominated front pages in Ireland, which was her home until Fall 2009. Like other high profile bullying cases across the country, Phoebe’s death has an ongoing impact on school policies and anti-bully laws.

These cases "have done an enormous amount to sensitize and activate the public about the issue of bullying… more than research and anything else that has got people thinking about the issue,” said Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education. “I think they have accelerated policy and action at the school and community level.”

Prince enrolled at South Hadley High School as a freshman in Fall 2009, after moving to the United States from Ireland, but quickly fell afoul of a set of girls who apparently were angry about the newcomer dating two male students. Other students, including one of the guys she dated, joined in the harassment.

Over the course of three months, Prince was verbally abused — publicly and in Facebook posts. She was threatened with physical abuse and received hostile text messages. On the last day of her life, Jan. 14, 2010, some of her tormentors drove by in a car, called her an Irish slut, and suggested that she go kill herself. She did.

Phoebe Prince, 15, committed suicide on Jan. 14, 2010 after a period of persistent bullying at her school in Hadley, Mass.

Five students were charged with an array of felony and misdemeanor violations in connection with Prince’s suffering. They ultimately pleaded guilty to criminal harassment and were sentenced to probation and community service after their court appearances.

Prince’s parents, Anne O’Brien and Jeremy Prince, also filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in November 2010, alleging that the South Hadley Public Schools had failed to protect Prince against discrimination, the Boston Globe reported.

They withdrew the complaint after settling with the school district in Nov. 2010. A court case filed by a reporter for Slate magazine -- with backing from the ACLU -- won the right to open the court documents this week, revealing a settlement amount of $225,000 from the town of Hadley.

Holding the teens accountable in court and the city's payout may act as as deterrents for other bullies, and adults who fail to intervene. But one lawmaker on the state's education committee believes that these measures are far from adequate and wrote one of the most comprehensive anti-bullying bills in the country.

Martha Walz (D-Boston) says the legislation was under way prior to Prince’s death. But the high school student’s death -- and that of 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, who killed himself in April after being persistently called “gay” — gave it momentum. The bill “Dignity for Every Student” passed by a unanimous vote in the Massachusetts legislature in May 2010.

“The two suicides allowed me to say… we have to go significantly farther than what others are doing,” said Walz.

The Massachusetts law makes anti-bullying curriculum mandatory for every student in every grade, K-12, in both public and private schools. It also requires training for every adult in the school — including teachers, coaches, bus drivers, custodians and administrators — on how to recognize bullying and what to do about it. It makes it mandatory for every adult to report cases of bullying, and every report mandatory for schools to investigate.

Similar cases have prompted many state’s to draft laws — some named after specific victims — but Nickerson says that many lean to punishment, fail to prevent the problem, and present new ones.

“Sometimes these laws are in reaction to a tragedy. People want to do something,” she said. “So often it leads to criminalizing and finding someone who is at fault. That’s our normal reaction — who is to blame, who is to be responsible?”

“I’m very cautious about this because we are dealing with minors, after all. And bullying is pretty prevalent — about 30 percent are involved as a bully or as a target… Prevention and education is the answer in most cases.”

Although Massachusetts was late among the states to enact an anti-bullying law — 46 other states have some form of anti-bullying legislation — Walz said the timing allowed her to improve upon existing laws, many of which are largely punitive, not preventative.

“They were all about identifying what bullying is and punishing kids who are engaging in it... and they were failing.... You need to create a cultural change, so that bullying is antithetical to a school’s culture — so it is not tolerated by teachers, and it is also not tolerated by students,” she said. “The real key is empowering the bystanders.”

Walz said that under the new Massachusetts law reports of bullying in schools have spiked, as anticipated. But she predicted that as the definition of bullying becomes clearer to students and teachers and as prevention efforts take hold, that number should level off and decline.

“The law is intended to get at not just students who commit suicide as those who suffer day in and day out… and are deeply harmed.”

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