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Kevin Cullen

Teacher learns bullying can happen to anyone

Last month, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a high school teacher in Amherst who accumulated a massive child pornography collection, using his school e-mail address to access kiddie porn, was entitled to his $2,393 monthly pension.

Is this a great country, or what?

Yet, if you drive down Route 9 from Amherst, across the Connecticut River, you will come to Northampton, where Deb Caldieri, a good teacher who never did anything but help kids, sits in a wheelchair with squat, nada, nothing.

You may remember Deb Caldieri. She was Phoebe Prince’s Latin teacher at South Hadley High School. Phoebe was the 15-year-old girl who killed herself in January 2010 after being bullied mercilessly by other kids while administrators at South Hadley High did nothing.


Deb Caldieri was Phoebe’s favorite teacher; she stuck up for Phoebe, and that made her persona non grata with the feckless administrators who ran South Hadley High. While some teachers launched a whispering campaign, blaming Phoebe for her own problems, Deb Caldieri stood up very publicly for Phoebe, accusing the school’s administrators of failing her.

Her reward was to be belittled by the school’s former principal, Dan Smith, aided and abetted by the former school superintendent, Gus Sayer.

The day after Phoebe killed herself, Caldieri responded with compassion, taking four girls to visit a boy who had liked Phoebe and was devastated by her suicide. Smith accused Caldieri of not getting official permission to take the kids out of school. Whether she did or not was open to debate, but that was a smoke screen anyway. Caldieri’s real sin was to challenge the authority of her superiors and suggest that Phoebe wasn’t protected as she should have been. Smith seemed set on getting rid of her, and so he did.

Other administrators sat in on her classes, challenging her teaching style. Her multiple sclerosis was already wearing on her, and the stress from Smith’s threat to oust her and the intimidation tactics of other administrators triggered seizures. Her depression worsened. She went on medical leave, bullied out of South Hadley High just as Phoebe was.


Smith and Sayer are quite adamant, saying they never bullied Caldieri and Smith has said he never threatened to get rid of her. They also deny anything they did in the aftermath of Phoebe’s suicide worsened Caldieri’s health. It’s the same refrain they offered after Phoebe died: They did nothing wrong.

You would think that Smith and Sayer, both retired, would have better things to do than oppose Deb Caldieri’s request for an accidental disability pension. She claims, and the evidence is pretty strong, that her preexisting conditions were made much worse by on-the-job stress. I have watched her physical deterioration over the last four years, and it is as plain as day. Her health was ruined by what happened after Phoebe died.

But, based on the testimony of Sayer and Smith, and others from the South Hadley school system, the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement Board rejected Caldieri’s claim.

The board didn’t even bother to hear from Caldieri’s therapist, Davina Miller, who filed an extensive report, detailing the progressive decline of Caldieri’s health, linking it directly to what happened in the aftermath of Phoebe’s suicide.

“Debra’s whole life was changed by this young girl’s tragic suicide and the way she was treated by the school afterwards. She became completely preoccupied by it all, and trying to understand and make sense of it,” Miller wrote. “On October 7 2010 she told me that she felt too traumatized by Phoebe’s death to recover. I am not in any doubt that Phoebe Prince’s tragic suicide and how Ms. Caldieri was treated subsequently by the South Hadley School Department greatly contributed to her deteriorated mental health. I have had conversations with other health providers of hers both at the time and since about this and this feeling [has] been unanimous.”


The Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement Board’s medical panel agreed. But the board rejected Caldieri’s claim.

Caldieri has appealed. In the meantime, she sits in her apartment in Northampton, broke, depressed, and disillusioned.

“I’m hanging in there,” she said, “but I’d be lying if I told you this isn’t so hard, so depressing, to be treated like this.”

She said she really liked Gus Sayer. He went out of his way to hire her, to breathe some life back into the Latin curriculum. She said she always got along with Smith, but everything went to pot after Phoebe died and she was seen as not being a team player. The administration at South Hadley High circled the wagons, blamed the victim, and held a big party for students right after Phoebe died. Deb Caldieri broke rank, and since then, they have tried to break her.

She didn’t think the retirement board gave her a fair hearing. She got the letter denying her claim the next day.


“Their minds seemed made up even before the hearing,” she said. “It felt like a charade. Going through the motions.”

She thinks about Phoebe all the time.

“I still grieve for her today,” she said.

I asked Deb Caldieri to describe what is being done to her.

“It’s bullying,” she said. “There’s no other word to describe it better. It’s bullying.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.