NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — Two Massachusetts teens accused of harassing a 15-year-old classmate who later hanged herself were sentenced Wednesday to a year of probation, the first of five anticipated plea deals in a case that drew worldwide attention to school bullying.
Phoebe Prince’s crying mother approved the deals completed Wednesday in Hampshire Superior Court, where Sean Mulveyhill and Kayla Narey, both 18, were sentenced for their roles in the bullying that preceded Phoebe’s suicide in January 2010.
Three other former South Hadley High School students are expected to accept similar plea arrangements Thursday in a nearby juvenile courthouse, a few miles from their small hometown about 100 miles west of Boston.
Prosecutors said Phoebe’s family agreed to the plea deals to end the stress of the drawn-out court proceedings and, more importantly, because they required the teens to admit that their threats, crude insults and slurs about Phoebe’s Irish ethnicity were criminal acts.
Prosecutors have said the bullying stemmed from four girls’ anger about Phoebe’s relationships with Mulveyhill, who was captain of the school’s football team, and another popular boy after she transferred to South Hadley from Ireland, and that Mulveyhill goaded some of the girls to harangue Phoebe after he dumped her.
“Today’s proceedings signify that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated in our schools and when it rises to the level of criminal conduct, as it did in these two cases, those responsible will be prosecuted,” Northwestern First Assistant District Attorney Steven Gagne said after Wednesday’s sentencings.
Mulveyhill, Narey and four other South Hadley teens originally were charged with violating Phoebe’s civil rights and other offenses, and Mulveyhill was charged with statutory rape for allegedly having sexual contact with the underage girl.
On Wednesday, Mulveyhill pleaded guilty under the plea arrangement to a single count of misdemeanor criminal harassment and the other charges were dropped, including the statutory rape charge.
Narey’s plea deal was slightly different: She acknowledged the state likely would win a conviction at trial on a criminal harassment charge, so prosecution was placed on hold without a formal guilty plea and the civil rights charge against her was dropped. That leaves her with a clean record if she successfully completes probation.
She apologized through tears Wednesday to Phoebe’s family, her own and her hometown, saying she was so jealous about Prince’s brief relationship with Mulveyhill — her on-and-off boyfriend — that she temporarily put aside the values her family had instilled in her.
Her attorney said Narey had only a few interactions with the girl, and was not part of the more extensive and drawn-out bullying that others are accused of orchestrating. She also posted disparaging comments about Phoebe on her Facebook page.
“I was the weak one, and that failure will always be with me … I am sorry, Phoebe,” Narey said Wednesday, crying as Phoebe’s mother sat nearby clutching a tissue after shedding her own tears. “I am immensely ashamed of myself that I allowed my emotions to spiral into acts of unkindness.”
Mulveyhill did not address the court during his sentencing, but his attorney, Vincent Bongiorni, said he believes the plea arrangement is “a fair and equitable one, given the entirety of the circumstances.”
Prosecutors’ comments Wednesday painted Mulveyhill as someone who deceived both girls about his involvement with the other, then egged on a third girl to frighten Phoebe and threaten to beat her up.
Phoebe hanged herself that day after school, telling a friend in final text messages, “I think Sean condoning this is one of the final nails in my coffin. I can’t take much more — it would be easier if he or any one of them handed me a noose.”
Phoebe’s death became an often-cited case in national debates over preventing and prosecuting bullying in American schools and universities. Her mother, Anne O’Brien, said Mulveyhill and Narey had many opportunities to stop the other girls’ bullying but, instead, added fuel to the fire by participating or condoning it.
O’Brien shared memories of visiting Paris with her daughter, reading the girl’s poetry, chatting at the kitchen table and discussing Phoebe’s dreams for her future, all of which were lost on the day the teen’s younger sister found her body.
“It is nearly impossible to measure the impact of Phoebe’s death upon our lives … There is a dead weight that now sits permanently in my chest,” her mother, Anne O’Brien, said in court.
Phoebe had attempted suicide earlier in the school year after the breakup with Mulveyhill, and information that police found on her computer indicated she was contemplating it again about a month before she hanged herself, Narey’s attorney, Michael Jennings, said Wednesday in court before prosecutors objected and the judge curbed his comments.
Phoebe’s mother did not address those comments, but said Narey had a chance to be a school leader and friend to Phoebe and, instead, turned on the girl despite being “well aware of Phoebe’s fragility and vulnerability.”
Mulveyhill and Narey must both serve a year of probation under terms of Wednesday’s plea arrangements and perform 100 hours of community service to help at-risk youth. They also cannot profit from telling their stories during their probation period, and can only be in contact with the Prince family at their approval.
The three younger teens — Ashley Longe, Flannery Mullins and Sharon Velazquez — have court dates Thursday in Franklin-Hampshire Juvenile Court.
A sixth teen, 19-year-old Austin Renaud, is not charged in connection with the bullying, but faces a single statutory rape charge for allegedly having sexual contact with Prince. He has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney says they do not have a plea agreement in place with prosecutors.