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.

Investigations Into Massachusetts Bullying Indictments Continue To Spread Guilt

People are furious in and out of Massachusetts. The people of Ireland are angry at South Hadley, Massachusetts. The people of South Hadley are “enraged” at South Hadley High School. District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, daring da from Western Massachusetts, is angry at nine kids. Oh yeah, speaking of the 9 kids who get to have their lives ruined next Tuesday…I wonder who they are made at. Maybe their attorneys will tell us during the arraignment.

You see, something that I pointed out in the Boston Criminal Lawyer Blog yesterday has begun to dawn the local populace. The daring da’s annulment of criminal culpability and earlier admissions aside, it turns out that staff members at the school did know that the late Phoebe Prince was the target of harassment long before her death.

And so, not missing a beat, residents and public officials have been begun to angrily accuse the school system of neglecting vulnerable students and have called on top administrators to resign. “Now we find out they knew all along, and did nothing,” said Joe Marois, who runs a local construction company. “People are just bewildered they didn’t step in, and are wondering why they weren’t included with the students in the prosecution.”

Is the next step a superseding criminal indictment by the daring da? Perhaps the legislature will begin work on a new ANTI-TURNING-YOUR BACK WHEN PEOPLE IN YOUR CHARGE ARE BEING HARASSED bill.!

Somebody should alert the Boston Globe columnist mentioned in yesterday’s blog that there is a new hero in town. State Representative John W. Scibak, who represents South Hadley, has slammed school officials for their silence, and said the public deserves a full accounting of why administrators didn’t act on the harassment reports.

“I’m looking for answers,” he said. “Families have a reasonable expectation that these kinds of complaints will be acted on, and they are entitled to a full explanation of what transpired. People wanted answers two months ago.”

Also looking for answers are various parents from the school. “They lied to the community,” said Darby O’Brien, whose stepdaughter is a senior at South Hadley High School. “They lied about how long it had gone on, and they lied that the mother had never come forward. If they had stepped in, this could have been prevented. But they failed miserably, and I don’t think you can trust them to protect the safety of the students.”

In the school district’s statement yesterday, Christine Sweklo, assistant superintendent for the South Hadley Public Schools, said that administrators had launched a review of the district’s bullying policies and would begin entering reports of harassment – and the subsequent responses – into an electronic database.

Many residents exhorted school officials to answer Scheibel’s criticism directly and provide detailed explanations for their actions.

“We are practically begging for answers, and they have none,” said Erica Laughlin, a 39-year-old mother of four. “We are absolutely fit to be tied that none of the staff is being held accountable. This has apparently been an issue for a long time, and I still don’t see anyone taking responsibility.”

Town meeting members Michael Keane and his wife, Kathleen, said they were frustrated that the town officials were silent on the matter during the meeting.

“It’s very disappointing to see no one in our town has the guts to stand up and say anything,” said Michael Keane, who has lived in South Hadley since emigrating from Ireland in 1963. “I think the town is still soul-searching.”
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“I have no reason to second guess the DA. I just don’t know enough” about the situation, he said. “I know people are very interested in the indictments and if the school knew more, but I’m more interested in how to prevent this from happening again.”

Several bullying specialists said the multiple harassment reports should have put staff members on high alert.

“Once it happens more than once, a red flag should go up,” said Elizabeth Englander, who directs the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center. “There has to be communication and standardized procedures so cases like this don’t fall through the cracks, and that’s what appears to have happened here.”

Specialists said the school’s poor response is not unusual and highlights the need for mandated reporting laws and training on bullying prevention. But others said the severity of the harassment leveled at Prince, and the number of students involved, suggested a systemic, deep-rooted problem.

“If you have nine kids who are charged, it’s a culture,” said Elizabeth Stassinos, criminal justice professor at Westfield State College. “There’s . . . permission from everyone involved. This happened right in front of them.”

Others said the accused teenagers’ parents deserve blame.

“It starts at home,” said Janna Darrow-Rioux, who has a son at the high school and has been involved in antibullying efforts. “I don’t blame the school. I think they did as much as they could during a very difficult situation. People often look for an established organization to blame rather than individuals.”

For a town that had just begun to recover from the shock and grief of Prince’s death, the severity of the charges sent many residents reeling.

“Everyone was taken aback by this,” said Paul Beecher, the town administrator. “I don’t think anyone knew the extent of it. It has reopened, I suspect, wounds that started to heal.”

Meanwhile, the Chairman of the South Hadley School Committee, ,Edward J. Boisselle pooh-poohed the suddenly-heroic daring da’s investigation into the death of Phoebe Prince, questioning key findings even as the superintendent of schools remained on a West Coast vacation amid the upheaval. He threw cold water on Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth D. Scheibel’s announcement Monday that “Phoebe’s harassment was common knowledge” in the high school.

“I don’t know how that’s factually based,” Boisselle said. “Did they go interview all 700 kids at the school and found out that more than 300 knew about it? Isn’t that the only way you could tell that they factually knew about it?”

Now this is clearly a brilliant man with bright things to say. Thank heavens he is on the top of the food chain in the school system. Kind of hard to imagine that anything could go wrong with him there.

After all, as Boisselle points out, a school investigation showed Prince faced bullying only shortly before her suicide (whatever “shortly” means), while Scheibel said the criminal torment spanned three months.

“That is news to us that there is an indication that this had been going on for a longer period of time,” Boisselle said. “Those are very serious allegations.”

Somebody might want to tell him about the January Boston Globe article about the problem before he speaks publically again.

Anyway, If he thinks those accusations are serious…wait until they turn into indictments and new laws!

Attorney Sam’s Take:

“So, which is it, Sam? You agree with Boisselle? You don’t agree with him?”

I was unaware that it was all or nothing. After all, even a broken clock is right twice a day. The callous attitude of Mr. Bisselle is what one would expect when one is speaking without thinking in a tragic situation like this with two thoughts on his mind…keeping his job and trying to withstand public ridicule.

Of course, one would imagine that he is in his position with the school system to serve the public…but maybe that’s just me.

We have expert witnesses, allegations of negligence, denials…it is a full scale legal carnival that is, asusual, focussed on blaming people. Of course, turn up the heat like this and everyone hires lawyers and simply tries to protect themselves.

Is this part of the “continuing investigation” the prosecutor had in mind when she made her very public showing of “heroism”?

One wonders if it might be more important to calmly try to protect kids from this sort of thing in an intelligent way rather than with theatrics.

But maybe not. After all, this is all going to court, we all know that. Some face the accusatory finger in civil court and othes, the kids for example, will face it in criminal court.

The line between civil and criminal matters is, at times, a thin one. For example, if you hit me, I can call the police and have you arrested. It is assault. However, I can also sue you civilly for any damages that you caused. In fact, if I was extra sensitive to such an assault, you will be liable for the damages you caused whether you knew about my weakness or not. It is called “Eggshell Theory”.

Normally, but not always, for a matter to be a crime, there needs to be a particular state of mind. We lawyers call it “mens rea” because we seem to have an affinity toward Latin words for some reason.

In any event, one might expect that a great deal of this bullying issue would be handled in civil court. The school’s negligence, for example is negligence that they should be held accountable for, should they be found to be negligent.

The bullying was wrong and it should be punished. It is also something that has happened since schools began. With access to greater technology, we have given them access to new ways of doing the teasing, such as computers.

But these are kids…someone is supposed to be watching them and, if they abuse things like computers, preventing them from using them.

“But Sam…you cannot always be there to watch your kids.”

Maybe. But you know what? You can try. If you cannot control your kid, then that is when you bring the juvenile justice system into the picture. There are procedures for that.

In this nightmare, there is no showing that the parents of these kids could have cared less about what their little darlings were doing. In fact, one might suggest that the degree of ugliness to which these kids went was, at least, not discouraged at home. At the school, there is no excuse. The school is supposed to be able to take some kind of action…not simply try to wipe its hands of it afterwards.

And so we criticize the school and the parents, but we take an unprecedented clearly publicity-minded move of inditing the kids and, in one fell swoop, ruining their lives.

Folks, you may or may not know this, but kids are often brutal and they often believe they have all the answers. Particularly when they hit their teens. It is virtually their job to be negligent in some of these ways. That is why we look to parents and schools to be on the lookout.

None of that seems to have happened here. And so, we pry open another hole in an already overburdened criminal justice system to force in yet another area that does not really belong in criminal court (much less superior court). The legislators become heroes because they start fumbling around with new laws to prohibit what is already prohibited. A daring da indicts 9 kids so that their lives can be ruined and she can call a few press conferences.

And the accused? The kids?

We will let them rot and call it “:justice”.

Tomorrow, we will look at the anti-bullying legislation that is being worked on. Prepare to examine more “heroics”.

Meanwhile, if you are facing such “heroism” and wish to discuss it with me, please do not hesitate to call me at
(617) 206-1942.

For the full stories upon which today’s blog is based, please see http://www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2010/03/31/anger_turns_toward_school_staff_in_bullying_case?mode=PF,

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