New Details Emerge in the Phoebe Prince Tragedy


We’ve discussed different elements of the Phoebe Prince case a number of times on this blog. Recall that Phoebe was the 15-year-old girl who committed suicide in January after being bullied and cyberbullied. She moved to South Hadley, Massachusetts, from Ireland at the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year. Being the new girl, she had attracted the attention of some of the local boys, resulting in resentment from some of the girls at the school. As a result, several students began relentlessly bullying Phoebe until she couldn’t take it anymore. Media reports exclusively zeroed in on the bullying as the cause of Phoebe’s suicide; the teens involved were charged criminally, and the actions taken by the school prior to the suicide were scrutinized. It appeared to be another heartbreaking case of teen suicide that was caused, or at least encouraged, by experience with severe bullying.

Emily Bazelon from Slate magazine just published an in-depth, three-part investigation of the events leading up to and following Phoebe’s suicide. (You can see more articles in her series on cyberbullying here). In this inquiry Bazelon reveals many aspects of the case that hadn’t before been publicly discussed. Like many of the previous cases of teen suicide tied to bullying, there is more to the story than the simple equation: “experience with bullying=suicide.” Bazelon thoroughly details the emotional and psychological struggles and interpersonal conflict that Phoebe was dealing with: She cut herself. She was prescribed medication to help with mood swings. She first attempted suicide the day after Thanksgiving by swallowing a bottle of her pills. Her parents and the school say they were on watch. During all of this she had dated at least two of the popular boys at her new school who had recently been in relationships with other girls. These girls apparently became jealous and along with others began harassing her at school and online. It appears that the bullying was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

Of course none of this new information justifies the bullying behaviors or discounts the tragedy of incident. Phoebe did not deserve to be bullied—no one does. Without a doubt, adolescence is a challenging developmental period. We know that some teens are better able than others to deal with the challenges. Our research shows that some youth are not negatively impacted by their experiences with bullying and cyberbullying. Others, however, are very much affected, feeling angry, frustrated, depressed, and even suicidal. For example, a forthcoming paper of ours found a significant relationship between bullying/cyberbullying and suicidal thoughts and attempts, but it is important to note that experience with bullying explained less than 5% of the variation in suicidal thoughts and attempts. So there are many other influences that also need to be considered. In fact, we are not aware of a single case where experience with bullying and cyberbullying was found to be the sole cause of an adolescent suicide.

At the same time, these experiences cannot be ignored. Would Phoebe have committed suicide if she hadn’t been bullied? We have no idea of knowing the answer to that question. There is little doubt that she was tormented by some of her classmates. Those experiences, coupled with the other challenges she was working through, were a recipe for disaster. A lot of seemingly little things can quickly add up to something huge in the eyes of an adolescent. Technology can magnify these so-called “little things” by exposing the target to a wider audience and by creating a perception in the victim that the whole world is against them. It also makes it harder to escape because technology can follow a person everywhere. In the eyes of some youth there appears to be no easy way out. It is the responsibility of all of us to be there to show those who are bullied that there are other options. We understand the pain that it causes and we need to do all in our power to stop the bullying behaviors and protect the victims. We owe at least that much to Phoebe and all of the other youth who felt they only had one option.


  1. Hello Both

    Could you tell me whether you have other criminal laws that deal with this incident. Over in the UK, we have 3 statutory provisions: Malicious Communications Act, Protection from Harassment Act and Offences Against the Persons Act.

    PS Am currently reading Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard

  2. It's not about suicide. It's about bullying and how it poisons the entire social climate. The drama becomes the focus of the social lives of these kids. The dynamics of the situation effects the climate and makes manipulation and heartache the lessons learned. We know that kids do not do well in school when they do not feel safe. Kids do not do well any where in their lives when this becomes the center of their relationships.

    It is so sad that it takes the death of a teen to draw attention to the toxicity of this behavior. Adults have been ignoring the dynamics and allowing it to fester and grow in intensity until it is cropping up in the news everywhere. Parents have dealt with this heartache for years with no help from any of the "experts"- schools where kids relate to each other away from their parents and families for 6 or more hours a day. Teachers and school administrators and counselors are supposed to be experts in dealing with students and the educational process at all stages of growth and development.

    This is an experience that is difficult to get past and many young people (and their families) are negatively impacted for life. There are those who can blow it off as just kids being kids, but there are just as many (or more) who cannot. Social aggression follows a kid everywhere and permeates into every minute of the day. And cyberbullying is a big part of that delivery system. Where can that kid go? What can the target do to be able to get away from it or make new friends?

    Trying to determine if Phoebe or any other child ended her life because she was bullied is ignoring the impact of the problem. It's not only these kids who need relief and intervention. The ones who live are the ones who are damaged for life. The problem of bullying must be addressed. As long as we excuse the behavior as "normal," it will continue.

  3. Agree completely with comment above. Thousands of parents have gone to schools begging them to do something for their child who is being targeted on a daily basis and usually nothing at all is done…..NOTHING. That is exactly what happened in this case. After the death even the school did not take it serious, they went ahead with the dance 2 days later, put out the usual letter of "ah too bad" and as far as they were concerned – end of story. With a little bit more investigation once it hit the news we then saw lies, ducking out, blame all around, even the victim, and all the usual games that are played and then next week we hear of another one. What we are fighting now is trying to reverse what the schools have allowed to happen and fluorish, jungle rule, normal peeking order as they called it. The most shocking details of this story is how the teachers and all the staff just let it happen – they basically sided with the bullies. They all knew exactly what was going on, without a doubt. I believe they really didn't care. It seems now the articles by Bazelon was a work in progress with the help and info from the school admin and the defense lawyers. The students were not charged with her death they were charged with what they did do and no one can say it was the only cause or the main cause – no one can know. I agree with the writer above and with Dr. Phil that the affects of bullying last a life time. You seem to think that if you live through it – all is good. No that is not true. You refer to it as little things – there are few adults that could take being in their offices at work and a group rushes in and calles them a slut or saying things like we are going to beat the hell out of you after work. An adult would call the police yet you expect the young students to just what?? go on with their math as if it didn't happen. The most hopeless thing to those targeted is when the teachers just look away or pretend they didn't hear it, then you know you are on your own. I laugh when I hear the "experts" saying the problem is that many of the other students just stand by, some encourage it. You expect more from the other students, even 3rd graders but you don't expect more from the adult teachers and staff? Does that make any sense? Now the teachers want extra time, more funding, more ed on the subject. P L E A S E They really should find another line of work. I know for a fact if it was one of their kids they would know what to do. We have to pay them and train them to act like responsible adults, to help a child in pain. What a copout. What ever the problems at school even poor grade marks they just mirror it back on the community. Their new buzz word is "the community" so they are not accountable. They pretend the students didn't tell, the parents didn't inform them – in many, many cases including this one – that just is not true. They have let this problem get out of control and now we have to fix it dragging them along. Most parents don't even know the names of the other students, most parents are not anywhere near the school, most parents can not go and sit in the child's classroom everyday – this was up to the teachers and the admin to keep it under control and they didn't, now it's a major everyday problem. Even the students at any age know that the parents can not help that much it's up to those that are there, who know the students, who see it happening everyday and most do absolutely nothing to help and then blame it on the parents, the community, the victim. All the students learn from this and they learn the wrong message, just ignore it and that is what they have been doing, they took their lead from the staff.

  4. I totally agree with both comments above. The school district here that my children go to do the same thing, they turn there heads as if it's not there problem and say. "kids will be kids". Right, that is pathetic because cyberbullying and plain face to face bullying day in and day out to another child is not quote there "kids will be kids" it's dangerous and very mentally damaging to the victims. I know I went through it everyday from about fourth grade and that was in 1971, no computers just having to face these kids all the time calling me names and making my school day miserable to the point that I dreaded getting up and going to school. It's also true on it follows you through your life because it has followed me everytime I see someone staring at me I feel uncomfortable, feeling like here we go again there probably criticizing something about me. I go to counselling basically because my husband was killed ten years ago and even though I have two bearutiful young and caring children(ages 24 and 22) I don't want to be here. I don't trust anyone and I won't talk face to face with anyone I don't know. So think about it if my situation impacted me so much just think what these kids are feeling that are not only being bullied in school but now on the computer or cell phone also. SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE DONE, THE SCHOOLS CANNOT AFFORD TOO IGNORE THIS ANYMORE!!!

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