Schools, mental health workers see progress in 10 years since Phoebe Prince’s suicide

  • PHOEBE PRINCE

Staff Writer
Published: 1/14/2020 11:40:14 PM
Modified: 1/14/2020 11:39:25 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Ten years ago, this community was shaken by the death of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, who died by suicide on Jan. 13, 2010, after enduring months of relentless bullying by her high school classmates

A decade later, schools in South Hadley and beyond are continuing to use what they learned from the tragedy to build a safer community while honoring Prince’s memory.

Prince, a native of County Clare, Ireland, took her own life months after enrolling in South Hadley High School. The tragedy drew national and international attention and initiated conversations on bullying in schools, administrators’ responsibilities to protect victims of bullying, and the consequences perpetrators should face for bullying. Ultimately, five South Hadley High School students were charged in connection with Prince’s death.

Since that time, community and statewide reforms have been initiated at the local and state levels to prevent similar tragedies in the future, including an anti-bullying task force in South Hadley and a Massachusetts law requiring schools to establish suicide prevention plans.

The tragedy also led to change in the mental health field, according to Jenifer Urff, a Northampton resident who oversees outreach and education activities at the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health in Boston. Urff recalled Prince’s death as “a heartbreaking case … that really highlighted the importance of paying attention to the many environmental factors that affect the mental health of students.

“For a long time, I think some people thought about suicide as the result of a biological mental illness,” Urff said, “but we now know that there are many environmental factors that are involved and that we can influence by connecting these people with compassion and empathy.”

In a statement shared with South Hadley schools this week, interim Superintendent Diana Bonneville said that the school has “worked diligently to work past this tragedy, incorporating Signs of Suicide, Restorative Practices, advisories, and anti-bullying curriculum.

“While this incident no longer defines who we are, it has most certainly shaped our policies and the type of school system we strive to be,” Bonneville continued. “While we promote the positive things our schools and students bring forth, I am most proud of our sense of community and the climate of respect, kindness and acceptance we instill as a school district.”

Students have also taken up the call to create a more inclusive environment at school. In a statement sent to the Gazette, the high school’s Student Council president, Bella Yee, wrote, “although the current South Hadley High School students were in elementary school 10 years ago when our community lost Phoebe Prince, our student body recognizes that our community was greatly affected by this tragic event and that it has influenced our actions over the last ten years.”

The Student Council has worked to improve the school’s environment through initiatives such as handing out “appreciation bags” filled with small gifts and inspirational messages to all students, and establishing a Positivity Subcommittee “that focuses on making each day a little brighter for the whole school community.”

Yee said that the Student Council has noted “a higher level of empathy between students,” and, among other efforts, has worked in support of the Special Olympics and is undergoing ableism training, has increased advisory meetings between students and teachers, and participated in the town’s annual food drive.

“Most importantly though,” Yee concluded, “our Student Council recognizes that while we have made great strides in improving our school climate, there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Members of the South Hadley School Committee also released a statement Monday, expressing that Prince’s “life and death have changed who we are as people, students, parents, and citizens of the world.”

“Our community’s hearts still grieve with, and for, the family whose souls were left with an unfillable void,” the statement read.

“Our mission every day is to work diligently to create a community of hope and generosity, of kindness and compassion, of inclusion and support,” the School Committee wrote. “Where no one is afraid to ask for help, and seeking help is seen as an act of strength. Where no one suffers alone, and where our schools are a safe and supportive environment for each and every person who walks through the doors.”

Prince continues to be mourned in her native Ireland, where the Irish Independent newspaper in Dublin published an article Monday reflecting on her death 10 years later.

Today, many schools offer more intervention methods than they did a decade ago, Urff said — some focused on suicide prevention specifically, others, such as social-emotional learning, promoting self-awareness and managing emotions and relationships in healthy ways.

Help is available for those struggling with thoughts of suicide, including the Samaritans Statewide Hotline, which can be reached via call or text message at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673); and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Other crisis hotlines with various specializations are available at Mass.gov/service-details/crisis-hotlines.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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