Samuel Goldberg has been a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney for 20 years. Prior to that, he was a New York state prosecutor. He has published various articles regarding the practice of criminal law and frequently provides legal analysis on radio and television, appearing on outlets such as the Fox News Channel, Court TV, MSNBC and The BBC Network. To speak to Sam about a criminal matter call (617) 492 3000.

A Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Take On Bullying, Criminal Charges And Credibility (Part One)

Earlier this week, when I said ” Tomorrow: Back To Bullying!” in the Boston Criminal Lawyer Blog I had intended to be writing myself about the South Hadley Bullying/Indictments issue. Unfortunately, this week’s schedule made it impossible for me to do so…for a few days (sorry about that). In the meantime, though, it would appear that just about everybody else was covering for me.

In an article today, the Boston Globe puts the cap on the week’s coverage by declaring that “Witch hunts won’t bring Phoebe Prince back“.

The article went on to discuss how the local world has spent the week condemning South Hadley school administrators for the girl’s tragic suicide. Apparently, the Globe indicates that said “witch hunters” are passing such judgment without benefit of all the facts, going further to explain that, under the law, school officials are constrained in what they can say about students or the school’s actions.

Since I have spent some time over the past couple of years condemning witch hunts, the article caught my attention. Let me review some of the history of this matter for you.

The 15-year-old young lady who committed suicide apparently did so because she had been bullied both in and out of school. The harassment included cyber-bullying through such internet outlets as Facebook.

As we have discussed, bullying is wrong. It is the opposite of empathy, which is something that we hope our kids will learn and bring with them into the future. Often, of course, the need to attack others because of how they look, or what their backgrounds are, is something that is learned at home. Such learning, which occurs both in and out of the house, is taught by example…and failure to act in opposition to such hostility.

Bullying is also something that has been with us, both in and out of school, since the invention of academic and other institutions where children spend time. Sometimes, in extreme cases, when the criminal law is clearly violated, kids have been threatened with prosecution. Some have even been brought to district court to answer for their behavior.

Well, until now, that is.

The local daring district attorney, upon learning of the tragedy, not to mention the publicity the suicide was generating, made two quick and presumably career-enhancing visits. One was to the grand jury to seek sweeping felony indictments against 9 of the kids. The second was to a press conference to celebrate her act of courage…which, as anyone in the system will tell you, will do nothing to solve the problem except to ruin the lives of the kids involved.

To be fair, the DA was also fairly creative…lumping in allegations that the girl had had sexual relations with those among the kids. This way, she was able to somehow include the crime of statutory rape into the bullying. While perhaps unfortunately sullying the girl’s name, it was successful in bringing a higher level of publicity to her crusade.

As the kids faced their arraignment dates amongst the compassionate general public (which brought death threats to the point that the court had to allow attorneys to represent their clients in absentia out of fear), the flying finger of blame began making more sweeping circles.

While the heroic DA had virtually exonerated the those presumably in charge of overseeing the young defendants during the relevant times, others had differing views.

School representatives had been quick to disavow any knowledge of the girl’s bullying issues. Perhaps it had been the shock of the result which caused the memory loss of details such as the Boston Globe’s reporting of the very matter mere months ago.

The DA bought it. Others didn’t.

This past week, there was a school committee meeting for the Massachusetts district. Obviously, the recent tragedy was a major topic of conversation. The result was perhaps a perfect reflection of the controversy it was held to discuss.

The meeting between school personnel and local parents ended up being a scene widely described as, to be kind, “heated”. So warm, in fact, that a number of these responsible role models had to be escorted out of the meeting by police.

“…And a child shall lead them” or the other way around, I wonder.

Anyway, the brilliantly articulate school board chairman, Edward Boisselle, delivered an announcement as well.

You may recall Mr. Boisselle from my blog of April 1st . He was the person of responsibility who dismissed suggestions that the school was aware of the bullying problem, suggesting that any investigation resulting in a finding that the bullying was “common knowledge” in the school was unreliable unless 700 students were interviewed and 300 of them acknowledged such knowledge.

It has since become clear that the school personnel was aware of the bullying. Wednesday night, Mr. Boisselle announced that he is stepping down from his leadership position. Continuing to place great importance on truth-telling, he explained that the decision had nothing to do with this issue, but rather he thinks the chairmanship should be rotated among members.

I suppose there is something to be said for consistency.

This blog will continue into Monday, when I will post Part Two. In the meantime, you have seen how events have unfolded in this tragic episode, as well as how quickly the focuss of the finger of blame shifts…for various reasons.

When it points at you it can bring criminal charges.

And then you are in real danger.

Be proactive when that finger is swinging. If you believe that it either has or could land in your direction, retain legal counsel. Experienced legal counsel.

If you wish to contact me to discuss it, please feel free to call me at 617-492-3000.

In the meantime, have a great, safe and law-abiding weekend!

For the original story upon which today and Monday’s blogs are based, please turn to : http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/09/us/09bully.html?src=mv , http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jtSfPUlJn7oUv4nT-KF2Kqs7J6mQD9F3HOKO0
, http://www.newstimes.com/news/article/3-girls-in-Mass-bullying-case-plead-not-guilty-440280.php, http://www.wickedlocal.com/norwood/news/lifestyle/columnists/x863095293/Another-Spin-Town-could-show-support-for-bullied-kids, http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/letters/articles/2010/04/16/witch_hunts_wont_bring_phoebe_prince_back?mode=PF, http://news.bostonherald.com/news/regional/view/20100409deval_patrick_parents_failed_in_alleged_bullying_case/srvc=home&position=recent and http://www.thesunchronicle.com/articles/2010/04/14/news/7248185.txt

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