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9 teens charged in girl's suicide in Mass.

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — With sharp words and an aggressive prosecutorial stance, authorities Monday spelled out a litany of charges against nine teenagers accused of subjecting a 15-year-old girl to months of tortuous harassment before she hanged herself in a stairwell at home in January.

Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel, who outlined the charges, also faulted officials at South Hadley High School, saying her investigation determined the harassment of student Phoebe Prince had been "common knowledge," contradicting administrators' previous assertions that they had been unaware of problems until after her death.

Two boys and four girls, ages 16 to 18, face a different mix of felony charges that include statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly. Three younger girls have been charged in juvenile court, Scheibel said at a news conference in Northampton.

Prosecutors declined to provide specifics, but said students targeted Prince in retaliation for briefly dating a popular male student and continued their harassment weeks after the pair's relationship ended.

Scheibel described in painful detail Prince's last day at school, saying that her investigation found the Irish immigrant was taunted in the hallways and bombarded with vulgar insults. As she studied in the library during lunch, the accused students allegedly hounded her openly while other students and a teacher looked on, alerting school administrators only after her death.

"It appears that Phoebe's death on Jan. 14 followed a tortuous day for her, in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse," Scheibel said. "The events were not isolated, but the culmination of a nearly three month campaign of verbally assaultive behavior and threats of physical harm."

The nature of the charges hints at a strategy of taking many legal avenues in the pursuit of convictions, legal specialists said.

"It's an aggressive approach," said Robert Griffin, a former Suffolk County prosecutor. "They are casting a wide net."

Prince was a freshman who had moved to Massachusetts from Ireland, and her suicide sparked statewide horror and prompted intense public debate on bullying. It also prompted an antibullying measure that has been approved by both chambers of the state Legislature.

In South Hadley, school officials were the target of intense criticism, and Scheibel's assertions Monday infuriated some parents anew, a sign that pressure could mount on officials to take action against administrators at South Hadley.

9 teens charged in girl's suicide in Mass. 03/29/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 1:24am]
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