Slate Reporter Emily Bazelon Sues South Hadley Over Prince Settlement

December 2, 2011 3:14 pm

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Complaint Alleges Town Has Ignored Requests for Public Records Concerning Settlement that Followed Suicide of High School Student Phoebe Prince

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NORTHAMPTON — Emily Bazelon, a reporter and editor for the national news organization Slate, today filed a lawsuit in Superior Court against the Town of South Hadley and town officials, seeking an order requiring disclosure of public records concerning the Town’s settlement after the suicide of South Hadley High School student Phoebe Prince–a death widely attributed in local and national media to severe bullying by students at the school. Since May, Ms. Bazelon has made numerous requests for details of the Town’s settlement with Prince’s parents, without success.

“After this tragic incident, the amount that the Town of South Hadley paid to settle with Phoebe Prince’s parents is a matter of public record, which town officials have no right to withhold,” said Bill Newman, director of the ACLU’s Western Massachusetts Legal Office in Northampton. “The public has a right to know.”

Ms. Bazelon filed the lawsuit with help from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, under the Massachusetts Public Records Act, G.L. c. 66, § 10. The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the defendants to produce the public documents that memorialize the settlement agreement between the Town of South Hadley and the representatives of Phoebe Prince. In addition to the Town of South Hadley, the suit names Edward J. Ryan, Jr., Town Counsel, and Carlene C. Hamlin, Clerk-Treasurer, in their official capacity.

Beginning in January 2010, local and national media reported on both Phoebe Prince’s suicide, and assertions by her family that warnings about her severe bullying at school and elsewhere by fellow students were ignored. In July 2010, Phoebe’s parents Jeremy Prince and Anne O’Brien filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), which alleged that South Hadley Public Schools failed to protect Phoebe from discrimination that amounted to sexual harassment, including the creation of an “intimidating, hostile and sexually offensive educational environment”, and a failure to address alleged incidents of bullying at school in the week that preceded her suicide.

In November 2010, however, Mr. Prince and Ms. O’Brien withdrew their MCAD complaint after reaching an agreement with the Town of South Hadley. Though the agreement received national news coverage, the amount of the settlement has never been disclosed.

Plaintiff Emily Bazelon has written extensively on the Phoebe Prince case, including a three-part series, “What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince?” which was a finalist for the Michael J. Kelly Award and the Gannett Investigate Online Journalism Award for 2010. Ms. Bazelon writes on cyberbullying and anti-bullying laws across the nation and is writing a book on that subject that is to be published by Random House.

On May 9, 2011, Ms. Bazelon filed a request for public records concerning the Phoebe Prince settlement. In the months since then, Ms. Bazelon’s initial request, and subsequent requests and appeals, have either been denied or gone unaddressed.

Under Massachusetts law, a public record is defined to include “documentary materials or data . . . made or received by any officer or employee . . . of any political subdivision [of the commonwealth].” Neither the agreement nor the amount of the settlement are subject to any exception under the law.

“When public money is spent, the public has a right to know how it was spent,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The public has a right to know the terms of the Town of South Hadley’s settlement with Phoebe Prince’s parents–but the importance of this case goes beyond this tragic incident. In a democracy, citizens must have access to the information they need to watch what our government is doing.”

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