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Legal Theory

Are Criminal Charges the Right Way to Punish High School Bullies in Suicide Cases?

Posted Mar 31, 2010 5:39 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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A prosecutor's unusual decision to pursue criminal charges against a group of high school classmates whose bullying allegedly resulted in the targeted 15-year-old's suicide has sparked debate about how best to address such situations.

Some say the criminal charges—which range from statutory rape to harassment and likely would not have been brought if Phoebe Prince hadn't hanged herself earlier this year—are a vindictive and unhelpful response to the situation, lawyers told the Boston Globe.

“We’re not talking about whether these kids should be punished in some normal fashion or be thrown out of school. We’re talking about whether they should have criminal records or possibly go to jail,’’ says Boston defense attorney Dan Small, who previously was a federal prosecutor. “The criminal law is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel, and you’re dealing with very tough social issues with a very blunt instrument.’’

Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, who decided to bring the criminal case against nine South Hadley High School teens, declined to comment.

But ex-Suffolk County prosecutor Matthew Machera says the orchestrated physical and verbal attack on a single teen alleged by Scheibel merits criminal prosecution. "They were relentless,’’ he says of the suspects.

The alleged harassment of Prince also reportedly included attacks on social networking websites.

Additional coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "9 Teens Charged with Harassment That Allegedly Led to Classmate’s Suicide"

Boston Herald: "Suspect’s mother: ‘My daughter never fought with’ Phoebe Prince"

Chicago Tribune (opinion): "Remember Phoebe"

Irish Voice: "Fun-loving Phoebe Prince remembered by Irish and US friends "

New York Daily News: "Mom of boy who killed himself near where suicide teen Phoebe Prince lived blames the schools"

Updated at 11:35 p.m. to link to Chicago Tribune editorial.

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