Phoebe Prince was a recently arrived Irish immigrant, 15 and emotionally fragile, when high school bullying over two boys she dated apparently drove her to hang herself with a scarf in her Massachusetts home.
Tyler Clementi was an 18-year-old violinist with a bright future. He jumped off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River after his roommate at Rutgers University allegedly used a webcam to spy on his same-sex liaison.
They never met each other, but together their ordeals put a spotlight on the harm caused by bullying and helped strengthen laws to crack down on what had until then been treated as a rite of adolescence.
“This prosecution has also shattered the myths that bullying is just part of growing up, that it affects only a small number of kids, and that kids can work it out themselves,” said David Sullivan, a prosecutor in the Prince case. “The era of turning a blind eye to bullying and harassment is over.”
Last week, five teenagers charged in the Prince case admitted in court that they participated in her bullying. In plea deals with prosecutors, they received probation and were ordered to perform community service. If they successfully complete their probation, the charges will be dropped. A statutory rape charge against a sixth teenager was dropped.
And on Friday, a former Rutgers student agreed to cooperate with authorities prosecuting a schoolmate on a hate crime charge in Clementi’s case and entered a program that could drop the privacy-invasion charges against her.
Though key differences separate the cases — Prince was in high school, Clementi in college — they illuminate the problem of bullying in its many forms and put a tragic and sympathetic face on the issue.
“Both Phoebe and Tyler were targeted by high-status kids who were well-liked in the community,” said Barbara Coloroso, a prominent anti-bullying consultant.
“As adults, we wonder how these types of kids could possibly do what they did,” she said. “What we have to be tuned into is: Mean and cruel is mean and cruel, no matter who is doing it.”
Prince was threatened and harassed in the hallways and classrooms of South Hadley High School, about 100 miles west of Boston. She was called “Irish slut” and “Irish whore” and ridiculed on her tormentors’ Facebook pages.
After word got around that one of her classmates planned to fight her, Prince became too afraid to go to class, went to the school nurse several times and lost focus on her studies, prosecutors said.
She committed suicide Jan. 14, 2010, after a day that included being hounded with slurs and having a beverage container thrown at her as she walked home from school.
When former District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel announced charges against Prince’s tormentors, she described “relentless”
bullying designed to “humiliate her and to make it impossible for her to remain at school.”
“Their conduct far exceeded the limits of normal teenage relationship-related quarrels,” Scheibel said at the time.
News of the criminal charges quickly spread through the United States and to Ireland, where Prince grew up in County Clare, followed by months of intense media coverage.
Six teenagers, including the captain of the football team, were initially charged with counts ranging from criminal harassment, stalking and felony civil rights violations to statutory rape.
After Prince’s death, several news organizations reported that Prince’s mother, when she first enrolled her daughter at South Hadley High School, had told a guidance counselor that her daughter had been bullied previously in Ireland. In court last week, a lawyer for one of the defendants said Prince had attempted suicide earlier in the school year after one of the boys she dated broke off their relationship.
The defendants’ lawyers and others criticized prosecutors for overcharging the teenagers, and some legal experts questioned whether they would be able to win a conviction.
Sullivan, the Northwestern District attorney, defended the plea deals and said Prince’s family supported them. He said the five teenagers had publicly admitted their guilt and been punished by the glare of the media spotlight.
“The most positive message to have come out of this tragedy,”
Sullivan said, “is that it has put an international spotlight on bullying and its devastating consequences.”
In Clementi’s case, his roommate and a female student are accused of using a webcam to spy on his dorm-room encounter with another man in September, and the roommate allegedly used Twitter to tell others about it. Clementi killed himself days later.
This time, the conversation began to address the particular persecution faced by young gays and lesbians.
President Barack Obama and celebrities including talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and sex columnist Dan Savage talked publicly about his death and created video testimonials telling young gays and lesbians that life gets better.
The effects of both teenagers’ cases are enshrined in law.
After Clementi’s death, the New Jersey Legislature passed a strong anti-bullying law, long in the works. In response to the Prince case, Massachusetts passed one of the nation’s toughest anti-bullying laws, requiring school employees to immediately report bullying.
A scholarship has been created and federal legislation introduced in honor of Clementi, who was in his first weeks at college.
Both of the accused in his case were bright students from affluent towns.
The roommate, Dharun Ravi, was indicted last month on 15 charges, including a bias intimidation count that accuses him of acting because Clementi was gay. That charge alone could send him to prison for up to 10 years.
The other student, Molly Wei, on Friday entered a pretrial intervention program, conditions of which include continuing to cooperate with authorities in their case against Ravi. Under the program, two invasion of privacy charges will eventually be dropped if Wei complies with a series of conditions.
After Wei’s hearing, Clementi’s father, Joe, read a statement summing up the spirit of the national soul-searching inspired by the two bullying cases.
“We wish that Miss Wei will become a person who will make better decisions,” and that she “will help people, and show kindness to those she comes in contact with.“