A Boston Lawyer’s View Of 9 Kids Indicted For Bullying (On Campus And Off) And Statutory Rape In Suicide Case

The death of Phoebe Prince, 15, the South Hadley teenager who allegedly took her own life in response to a barrage of bullying (hereinafter, the “Deceased”) is looming over Massachusetts criminal justice. It has inspired new lawmaking in the legislature and, yesterday, hit the criminal justice system hard.

Indicted felonies for 9 teenagers hard!

The charges include statutory rape, violation of civil rights, criminal harassment, and disturbing a school assembly. Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel announced the charges today.

“Their conduct far exceeded the limits of normal teenage relationship-related quarrels,” Scheibel said of the nine teens, the oldest of whom is 18 years old.

Really? Let’s look into that.

You have probably heard about this story with a different allegation involved…bullying.

The deceased is said to have committed suicide two days before a high school dance this January. School officials have said that this came in the wake of a wave of bullying directed at her by some school mates at South Hadley High School.

Examples of the bullying?

Well, according to Scheibel, the investigation reveals that on January 14th (the date the Deceased died), she had had a “tortuous day for her, in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse.” Further, “The harassment occurred while she studied in the school’s library around lunch period, walked in the school’s hallways near the end of the school day and after school, as she walked on Newton Street toward her home,” the district attorney said.

The bullying included disagreements over teen romances at school, school officials said. And it continued with taunting text messages and harassing postings on Facebook, the popular social networking site.

“The real problem now is the texting stuff and the cyber-bullying,” said South Hadley School Superintendent Gus A. Sayer. “Some kids can be very mean towards one another using that medium.”

“On the day of her death, primarily three individuals, one male and two females, were involved in the assaultive behavior which appears to have been motivated by the group’s displeasure with [the Deceased’s] brief dating relationship with the male student that had ended some six weeks previous,” DA Scheibel said.

These are the examples which are apparently said by the district attorney to be exceeding the norm. Somehow.

The Deceased’s death and the 2009 death of an 11-year-old boy, of Springfield, helped motivate both the Senate and the House to push through new antibullying measures. A conference committee is to meet this week to settle differences between the two versions.

Attorney Sam’s Take:

This is a tough one.

First of all, let’s understand the legal playing field here. A couple of the boys were charged with statutory rape. This would indicating rape without force, but in which the Deceased was apparently a willing participant. However, under the law, she was underage, and so it is rape nonetheless – statutory rape.

While the prosecution may have decided to add this into the charges, it is difficult to see how this was a part of the bullying and harassment. While a crime nonetheless (which may be impossible to prove without the Deceased there to testify), one must wonder why the charge was included in these indictments?

Of course, it does make the incitment just a bit spicier, does it not?

I want to remind you that these are not simply district court charges. These kids have been indicted. Felony charges. Superior Court. Years in state prison. Not to mention the fact that the question of whether they have ever been charged/convicted of a felony on every school or job application in the future is now in play, unless the charges are sealed after the cases end. Or should I say, 15 years after the cases end at the earliest.

Now, the statutory rape charges aside, let’s look at the actions with which these defendants are now charged…all political grandstanding aside.

Let me remind you that I have two kids. Let me also reveal that I was not exactly the consummate “big man on campus” myself growing up. I got teased, bullied and, at times, harassed. True, there was no “Facebook” or other computer devices that I could choose to either turn on or ignore. There were, however, telephones in which I have a suspicion classmates took verbal shots at me behind my back. I did not like it. It hurt me. If it was going on for my kids, I would be crushed.

It is wrong and kids can be very cruel. The more parents allow for the benefits of scientific media discovery at home, the more those devices can be used for unintended reasons…such as bullying. Especially if not properly supervised.

Cases in which we lose someone like the Deceased, particularly in the way we did, are heart-breaking. She, along with her family, came over from Ireland for a better life here and this is what our country and societal norms treated her to.

We should be ashamed of that. That’s right…not a handful of our kids who are taking the long-lasting rap for things that kids have done from the beginning of time. It is a norm we have allowed and parents and schools have allowed to perpetuate.

And now, we can all breate a sign of release because the criminal justice system is being used to pick up the slack…allowing one more political football.

But then, again, this is a criminal law blog. If you want me to further argue my opinion, invite me to another forum. I’d be happy to participate. But in the meantime, what does this have to do with you?

Well, particularly if you have kids, you must be aware that their actions, even if legal since you were a kid, can end up in life-altering results. Any criminal charge has the ability to derail the most promising of future plans. Make it a felony and the danger is at least doubled.

You may agree with it. You may not agree with it. But your kid will pay for it…perhaps with life-long payments.

Criminal justice is no longer simply criminal justice. It is also political. There are elements involved with these cases that you may not be aware of.

What is the best thing you can do? Hire someone who is aware. Retain an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Do not simply figure, “well, if my kid tells the truth, common sense will prevail and everyone will be reasonable.”

Not only you…but your child will pay the price for your naiveté.

If you are facing a nightmare anything like this and would like to discuss it with me, please feel free to give me a call at (617) 206-1942. This is a serious issue that touches upon one of the biggest dangers facing the criminal justice systrem in my opinion. I hope it gets the exposure it truly deserves!

For the full stories upon which today’s blog is based, please see http://www.boston.com/news/local/breaking_news/2010/03/holding_for_pho.html and http://www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2010/01/24/teens_suicide_prompts_a_look_at_bullying/

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