The Phoebe Prince case and the right to speak

Phoebe Prince

The tragic South Hadley bullying case has led to a federal lawsuit charging that a town official denied a local resident his First Amendment right to speak at a public meeting. Luke Gelinas, the father of two kids in the school system, was tossed out of an emotional South Hadley School Committee meeting on April 14. He has now filed a civil-rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court. The Republican of Springfield reports on the suit here, and the Boston Globe here.

Then-School Committee chairman Edward Boisselle reportedly ordered Gelinas to leave after Gelinas invoked the name of 15-year-old suicide victim Phoebe Prince, violating a ground rule Boisselle had set. Gelinas was escorted out of the meeting room by two police officers.

The offending statement (pdf) that Gelinas delivered that night is a model of respectful decorum. In it, he called for the removal, resignation or censure of Boisselle, school superintendent Gus Sayer and high school principal Daniel Smith.

According to The Republican, at the April 28 School Committee meeting Gelinas was back, and apparently none too happy about his treatment two weeks earlier. He compared Boisselle — no longer the chairman — to Joseph Goebbels and Joseph Stalin. Shortly thereafter the ACLU sent a letter to the committee complaining Gelinas’ First Amendment rights had been violated at the April 14 meeting.

In June, Luke and Lorraine Gelinas and a third parent, Darby O’Brien sued the School Committee in Hampshire Superior Court, claiming the committee broke the state’s open-meeting law by approving a two-year contract extension for superintendent Sayer in executive session on Feb. 24.

The newly filed federal suit names Boisselle and the two police officers as defendants, but not the School Committee itself.

It’s hard to pass judgment on this without knowing the personalities involved and what, if any, attempts were made to settle this beforehand. But if Boisselle and company could have made this go away with a public apology, then they missed an opportunity that may not come around again.

And if Gelinas had simply been allowed to read his statement on April 14, it may never have occurred to him to compare Boisselle to a couple of genocidal monsters.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Analyzing coverage of the Phoebe Prince story

Occasional Media Nation commenter Bill Weye has written a detailed critique of how his local newspaper, the Springfield Republican, has covered the Phoebe Prince story. Weye offers a harsh analysis, pointing his finger at newsroom cutbacks and a court reporter whom he considers to be inexperienced.

I know nothing about the Republican. But whether Weye is right or wrong, his post strikes me as a well-thought-out take that is worth reading.

South Hadley school superintendent returns

It’s not much, but at least South Hadley school superintendent Gus Sayer is back from vacation and defending the school system’s response to the bullying of the late Phoebe Prince. And, unlike school committee chairman Edward Boisselle, Sayer manages to do so without making it worse. Here’s Sayer, in Peter Schworm’s Boston Globe story:

No one turned their back on this. I think we did everything we could. If I thought I had done something wrong, I would resign. But I think we did our best.

We’ll see whether that’s the case. But Sayer is saying the right thing.

Meanwhile, Boisselle, whose sneering dismissal of District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel’s report that teachers and administrators knew Phoebe Prince was being bullied but did nothing has touched off a firestorm, appears to have taken the wise course of action and kept his mouth shut since talking to the Boston Herald on Tuesday.

Sadly, the Springfield Republican reports that no one is running against Boisselle as he seeks re-election on April 5.

The uncaring school officials of South Hadley

I want to call your attention to two strong Boston Herald pieces on the bullying-related charges filed in connection with the suicide of South Hadley High School student Phoebe Prince.

First, Margery Eagan had a terrific column yesterday on the uncaring adults who might have stepped in and stopped the torture — the teachers, administrators and staff members who looked the other way despite knowing exactly what was going on, according to District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel.

“She told her mother, who told the school,” Eagan wrote. “Yet on the day she died, she was attacked in the library right in front of a teacher. She was attacked again in the hallway and again as she walked home.”

Even more disturbing is a story in today’s paper by Laura Crimaldi and Jessica Van Sack reporting that South Hadley School Committee chairman Edward Boisselle was dismissive of Scheibel’s findings when interviewed. In response to Scheibel’s assertion that the bullying directed toward Phoebe Prince was “common knowledge,” Boisselle reportedly said:

I don’t know how that’s factually based. 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?

I wonder how you go about recalling a school committee member in South Hadley?

And what about school superintendent Gus Sayer? He is — are you ready? — on vacation, and has said nothing since Scheibel announced yesterday that her office was indicting nine suspects. Granted, he’s attending a wedding on the West Coast. But it’s not like he’s being asked to comment on flooding in a school basement.

This story by Sandra Constantine, in the Springfield Republican, at least makes it look like assistant superintendent Christine Sweklo is on the case. But, based on the Herald’s reporting, we appear to be dealing with mind-boggling indifference on the part of Boisselle and a less-than-heroic response from Sayer.