A Town Divided: Bullied to Death?
The conversation Luke Gelinas recently had with two of his South Hadley, Mass., neighbors started out relaxed. But it quickly grew heated. So heated, in fact, that the men, "friends for years," recalls Gelinas, had to shake hands afterward to calm down. Even so, "I will never play cards with them again," says Gelinas, 48. "It's that deep and bloody."
The subject that opened such a gaping wound? Phoebe Prince. All around the New England town of 17,000 people, tempers are flaring as residents debate who is most responsible for Phoebe's Jan. 14 suicide and what should be done with the six teens who have been indicted for bullying her on charges ranging from statutory rape to stalking. As the first of the accused-all of them Phoebe's former schoolmates at South Hadley High School-begin heading to court, residents are sending each other threatening letters and nasty Facebook messages. "There are a lot of diverse feelings now," says parent Mitch Brouillard. "School administrators need to come clean on the actions they took and their inactions."
Charging the teens as adults sent a strong message against bullying, and parents are calling for the resignations of South Hadley School Superintendent Gus Sayer and high school principal Daniel Smith. The call grew even louder on March 29, after Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said faculty and administrators were well aware of the bullying but did little to stop it. "These guys have done a good job of vilifying anyone who speaks out against them," says Gelinas, who wants the pair ousted while one of the neighbors he debated with blames the media for the negative attention. Yet the administrators have their supporters. At a gas station on April 2, a woman noticed Smith and yelled out across the street, "Hang in there, Dan," before running over to hug the principal. "He's a good man," said the woman, who didn't want her name used. But then she hedged: "I don't know if he's going to make it through this."
Much of the town's venom is directed at the six indicted teenagers: Sean Mulveyhill, 17; Ashley Longe, 16; Kayla Narey, 17; Flannery Mullins, 16; Sharon Chanon Velazquez, 16; and Austin Renaud, 18. They are accused of bullying Phoebe, a vivacious girl and recent Irish immigrant who had had a brief fling with Mulveyhill, a boyfriend of Narey's. The girls followed Phoebe around school calling her a slut and an Irish whore, challenged her to fights, and on Jan. 14 one of them tossed a soda can at her.
Angeles Chanon, a parent of one of the teens, defended her daughter, telling the Boston Herald that Sharon never physically harmed Phoebe. But another parent wasn't so bold. "It's been very hard these last days," she told PEOPLE. "If I defend my child or don't defend, people will have their opinions." After Phoebe died, some of the defendants made snide comments about her on a Facebook memorial page. Now "hate pages" have been created and directed at each of the girls accused of bullying her.
Not everyone in town is blaming the teens. Some residents say the students are the victims of an overzealous prosecutor. "It's a sad, sad case, but they may be overdoing it," says a lawyer who is not involved with the matter. Noting that Phoebe had had a relationship with Mulveyhill, the lawyer said, "A 17-year-old having [consensual] sex with a 15-year-old. Is that rape?" A source close to Ashley Longe's family says the teen is holding up well. "The news is making her look like a monster, the total opposite of what she is," says the source. "It's pretty rough. We're there for her."
If there is a silver lining to be found in this torn-apart town, it's this: Students at the high school aren't tolerating bullying anymore. They're speaking up and defending classmates. "I've seen a lot more bravery," says Betty Czitrom, a sophomore. "It's been very difficult for us. But I hope in the future it won't take a suicide to bring this sense of community."
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine