Suicide Aftermath Still Divides South Hadley

By Adam Reilly


Jan. 13, 2011

BOSTON — In some ways, things are quiet again in South Hadley.
That’s the town where 15-year-old Phoebe Prince took her own life on January 14, 2010. For the Irish émigré’s family and friends, her death was a private tragedy. But it also made South Hadley an international scapegoat for the problem of bullying.
Now, the media spotlight has moved on. But this quaint town is still struggling to come to terms with Prince’s death.
South Hadley, One Year Later
The mood in South Hadley is markedly different in the town’s common and 650-student high school than it was a year ago. High school senior Robert Archambault welcomes the change.
“There were news trucks constantly outside of our school. When you left, news truck would, like, attack you,” said Roger Archambault.
But it wasn’t just the media’s presence that shook Archambault. It was the way the press and others outsideSouth Hadley seemed to blame the entire town for Phoebe Prince’s death.

“The whole community around you, the school community, was just heartbroken, and we didn’t really know what to do,” said Archambault. “It was really funny how we were being portrayed as bullies when all the other towns and the news was bullying usaround.
Now Archambault is working to change that. He’s vice chair of the South Hadley Youth Commission, a volunteer group that formed after Prince’s suicide to do good works and boost the town’s battered public image.
“Over time – because it’s going to take time – people will take a different look at South Hadley,” predicted Archambault. “And say, ‘Maybe we were wrong and they’re not who the news said they were.' "

South Hadley High School students held a candlelight vigil for Phoebe Prince last January. (AP)

A lot of people feel like South Hadley got a raw deal over the past year. Selectman Bob Judge says the town was misrepresented in media reports. But he also believes that South Hadley is stronger as a result. 
“Out of tragedy comes opportunity,” Judge said. “I think people in South Hadley are seizing this opportunity to strengthen our community, form new ties, communicate better, and get groups talking to each other and people talking to each other that before maybe never talked to each other ’cause they didn’t need to.”
As evidence, Judge cites a surge in volunteerism, like a new suicide-prevention coalition, and the creation of a new South Hadley code of conduct that stresses the need for more civil interactions.

Moving on too quickly?

 But according to some vocal skeptics, it’s far too early to be talking about beginning the healing process. In the year since Prince’s death, South Hadley parent Luke Gelinas has been sharply critical of the town’s response. In April, Gelinas was ejected from a school-committee meeting while arguing that school administrators should lose their jobs over Prince’s death. Nine months later, he’s still making his case.
“There is an environment in that school that led to the problems with Phoebe Prince,” Gelinas said. “That environment has been there a long time.”
“Kids are smart,” he adds. “They don’t believe what they hear, but they do believe what they see. And until they get a change of leadership, nothing is going to change here.”
Gelinas and Darby O’Brien, another parent and pointed critic of the South Hadley status quo, claim that school officials failed in the run-up to Prince’s suicide. And they claim those same officials haven’t been honest with the public.
“Nobody is holding them accountable,” O’Brien said. “And the crazy thing is that you’ve got these six kids who’ve been hit really hard with charges and nobody holds the people who were responsible for running the joint responsible at all.”
O’Brien and Gelinas have gone to court to undo the recent re-hiring of South Hadley School Superintendent Gus Sayer. But Sayer says the school system did everything it could to protect Prince, and that it’s wrong to blame educators for her death.
“No teacher, okay, was responsible for what happened,” Sayer said. “No teacher failed to report what they should have reported. No administrator failed to take action when they should have taken action. But despite that we had an outcome that everybody feels terribly about.”

South Hadley High School.

In the wake of Prince’s suicide, added Sayer, the schools moved quickly to craft an aggressive newanti-bullying curriculum.
“We’ve strengthened the curriculum in the lower elementary grades, we’ve added a new curriculum at the middle school, and we’ve also adopted a new curriculum at the high school,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll get to things more quickly. Hopefully where we canbe successful we can intervene earlier and prevent some things things from escalating.
A Town Divided
This back-and-forth between Sayer and his critics has forced South Hadley residents to choose sides.  Carol Constant is one of the adults behind the South Hadley Youth Commission. She says that errors probably weremade prior to Prince’s death, but adds that they may have been unavoidable.
“I think mistakes have been made,” Constant said. “Could anybody anticipate it? Can every teacher and every administrator or every principal be in a room to witness something that happens, or out on the street? Absolutely not.”
The push to oust Sayer, Constant claims, is counterproductive.
“One of the things that’s a real concern is this idea that this can be done through lawsuits,” she says. “That is, in a sense, perpetrating the bullying. It’s not being part of the solution.”
Still, O’Brien and Gelinas are determined to press on. They’ve even floated the possibility of running for the South Hadley School Committee later in 2011.
“We’re not going to quit now,” O’Brien said. “We both have kids who are younger, who are coming through, and they’re not going to go through that. And neither are the other kids in this town.”
Meanwhile, Sayer warns that when it comes to bullying, schools can only do so much.
“To believe that as a result of the plan that we have, or any other school district in the state has, that we’re going to stop bullying would be so unrealistic,” he cautions. “That just is not going to happen.
By way of example, he cites Phoebe Prince’s tragic case.
“The situation with Phoebe Prince – some of the bullying that took place was because of jealously over relationships,” Sayer says. “Believe me, you can’t just sit down with kids who are angry because they like somebody and somebody else likes that person and you try to explain, ‘Well, it’s okay.’ No! It really means a lot to these kids. And so the anger they feel when their relationships are interfered with can run very, very deep.”
Those kids and that anger may be back in the headlines soon. The six students charged in Prince’s death have yet to stand trial. When they do -- or if the charges are dropped by David Sullivan, the new Northwestern District Attorney -- the press will certainly pay attention. High school senior Robert Archambault is dreading it.
“We all fear the media is going to come back again and say different things about our student body and our school that aren’t true,” Archambault says. “Because when you go up against something like the media it’s really hard to defend yourself. Because once they say something… how are you going to say anything against that? You can’t.”
South Hadley will mark the first anniversary of Phoebe Prince’s death with a candlelight vigil on the town common Friday night. 


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