Phoebe Prince bullies sentenced, but how do they make things right?

Five teens have been sentenced to probation and community service in the case of Phoebe Prince. But bullying-prevention advocates hope that the work of ‘restorative justice’ has just begun.

By , Staff writer

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    Sean Mulveyhill, second from left, sits in court during his hearing where he pleaded guilty to criminal harassment in Franklin - Hampshire Juvenile Court in Northampton, Mass., on Wednesday, May 4.
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Five teens who faced criminal charges for bullying in connection with the 2010 suicide of Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, Mass., have been sentenced to probation and community service.

While the courtroom chapter of the drama in central Massachusetts is largely over, bullying-prevention advocates hope that the work of “restorative justice” has just begun. Now, they say, the defendants should use their experience to help other young people steer clear of bullying and the deep harm it causes.

“These are roles these kids play, and we want to ... have them rewrite their own script,” says Barbara Coloroso, an educator and author on bullying. What’s needed, she says, is “accountability where justice is served for the family and healing takes place” – rather than either of the two extremes that some in the public have called for: locking up the teens or not holding them accountable at all.

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After the teens have admitted they’ve done wrong, the next step in restorative justice is to fix what they can, Ms. Coloroso says. While they can’t undo Ms. Prince’s death, they should take steps to remove from the Internet the hurtful comments they made about her, Coloroso says. Second, they should work to ensure they never engage in bullying again, and she hopes they’ll go into schools to do preventive work.

Third, she says, they should privately make some attempt to reconcile with Prince’s family, when the family is ready. (The court ordered that they not have contact with the family unless the family consents.)

Sean Mulveyhill and Kayla Narey were sentenced on Wednesday to a year of probation and 100 hours of community service with at-risk youth, in exchange for admitting criminal harassment. Sharon Velazquez and Ashley Longe received similar sentences Thursday in juvenile court, and Flannery Mullins was sentenced for a civil rights violation, also in juvenile court. The courts also prohibited them from telling their stories for profit during the probation period.

For some of the teens, their records will be cleared if they successfully complete probation. The charges originally filed ranged from statutory rape to violations of Prince’s civil rights.

Prince, a freshman at South Hadley High School who had recently moved from Ireland, dated Mr. Mulveyhill, and after they broke up he and the girls directed threats and insults against her, including slurs against her Irish ethnicity. In the time leading up to her suicide, Prince feared being attacked and frequently visited the school nurse or avoided school.

Prince’s family agreed to the sentences, in which the more-serious charges were dropped, to avoid drawn-out trials, prosecutors said. Another teen, Austin Renaud, has pleaded not guilty to statutory rape and is due in court later this year.

The proceedings “signify that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated in our schools and when it rises to the level of criminal conduct ... those responsible will be prosecuted,” Steven Gagne, Northwestern first assistant district attorney, said in a statement after Wednesday’s sentencings.

Alfred Chamberland, a lawyer for Ms. Mullins, said in a statement that prosecutors had “overcharged” the girls and that the media had unfairly portrayed them as “mean girls and bullies.”

Some educators raise concerns that criminal cases are not the best way to address bullying. While the Prince case “has helped put bullying and cyberbullying on the educational agenda ..., children are very reluctant to report bullying to adults, and the threat of sanctions may make it less likely they will do so,” says Peter Sommer, head of the Cambridge Friends School in Massachusetts. “Interventions really have to be more educational than punitive.”

But others applaud the prosecutors. The comprehensive set of charges was the best approach to prosecuting cyberbullying that she’s ever seen, says Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety, an online safety group.

On Wednesday, Mulveyhill did not address the court, but Ms. Narey offered a tearful apology, saying she let her jealousy get the better of her. “I am immensely ashamed of myself that I allowed my emotions to spiral into acts of unkindness,” she said.

Girls often fight with one another over boys when it’s actually the boy’s behavior they should be upset about, says Cheryl Dellasega, author of “Girl Wars” and a professor in Penn State’s College of Medicine in Hershey. She’s helped set up after-school programs such as Club Ophelia, where girls get a chance to do role-playing and talk about scenarios that involve bullying and other forms of relational aggression.

“Girls often don’t realize [their aggressive behavior] can lead to suicide,” she says. The regret once the consequences emerge “never goes away,” she adds. “If you don’t speak up as a bystander ... it shapes you as a grown-up woman.... It’s a life skill we want to teach girls.”

Ms. Aftab has seen the power of restorative justice in the case of the baby sitter who helped a woman cyberbully Megan Meier, a Missouri teen who later commited suicide. The baby sitter, Ashley Grills, has told other young people how her life changed when she realized Ms. Meier was dead in part because of what she had done. The family forgave her, but “every day she feels she has to help others,” Aftab says.

During court proceedings Wednesday and Thursday, Prince’s mother, Anne O’Brien, spoke about her daughter’s compassion, humor, and poetry. Her face twisting with emotion, she said how unbearable the loss has been. “Phoebe tried to be strong, but sometimes people want nothing more than to break you,” she said Thursday, casting a steely look at Mullins, who at one point threatened to beat up Prince and, when confronted by people about it, tried to put the blame on the victim.

During proceedings for Ms. Longe on Thursday afternoon, Ms. O’Brien told the court that during a meeting with Longe, the girl had expressed remorse to her directly. Longe is the only teen to have done so, said O’Brien, who also noted that Longe had expressed remorse in her initial talks with police.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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