The suicide of a 15-year-old student at Marianapolis Preparatory School in Thompson who was allegedly bullied online is being investigated by Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.
Connor Tronerud, who lived with his family in Sutton, Mass., and attended Marianapolis Prep in Thompson, died Dec. 4 “after struggling with bullying from peers,” the family’s obituary said.
A spokesman for Early’s office said, “We investigate all unattended deaths in our county, so yes — this is under investigation.”
In a statement, Marianapolis Prep’s head of school, Joseph C. Hanrahan, said the school is “continuously vigilant to aggressive incidents of any kind, including cyberbullying, and whenever an issue is identified or reported we respond swiftly and compassionately with the safety of our students as our top priority.”
Hanrahan added that the independent day and boarding school “promotes a culture of transparency encouraging our entire community to raise any issues of concern and providing support services whenever there is a need.”
Hanrahan described Connor as “an enthusiastic participant in many school activities” who spent six summers at the school’s Camp Stonewall. “We will always hold Connor close to us,” he said, “and we offer prayers of comfort and peace for his family.”
The school will hold a private memorial service for Connor on Saturday at its chapel, and is offering counseling to students until the winter recess begins next week. Marianapolis Prep — a school of 400 students located in the northeast corner of Connecticut — touts a 7-to-1 student-faculty ratio and 100 percent college acceptance rate. The school’s Facebook page had been disabled as of Wednesday evening.
Connecticut State Police are not participating in the investigation because the boy died in Massachusetts, a spokeswoman for the agency said. Thompson is within the jurisdiction of State Police Troop D.
Asked whether state police would become involved if it was revealed that Connor was bullied at the Connecticut school, Kelly Grant, the agency spokeswoman, said, “It depends on the investigation — we can only know what the Massachusetts people tell us.”
It is unclear where the alleged bullying took place, but Connor’s family implied that much of it was inflicted on social media. While he “had many spaces in which he felt safe and nurtured,” they wrote in a GoFundMe description, “others — including social media — proved overwhelming and harmful.”
The 2010 suicide of another Massachusetts teen, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, led to the prosecutions of six classmates for criminal harassment and violating Phoebe’s civil rights. Five of the six teenagers either pleaded or were found guilty and received probation. Elizabeth Scheibel, the local district attorney, did not bring charges against the school’s faculty, although Scheibel alleged that some had knwon of the abuse for months.
After Phoebe’s death, Massachusetts lawmakers enacted an anti-bullying law in May 2010. Among other things, the law prohibits bullying off school grounds or through the use of technology, or “if the bullying creates a hostile environment at school for the victim, infringes on the rights of the victim at school.”
In 2015, the parents of a 15-year-old Greenwich High School sophomore who committed suicide in 2013 sued both the town and the school board for allegedly ignoring anti-bullying statues. The family is seeking $7.5 million in the suit, which the Greenwich Time reported has yet to be resolved.
Bullying has always been an intractable problems for school administrators, said Judy Falaro, a Quinnipiac University education professor and a former New Haven school principal, but social media platforms have amplified the choruses of abuse and hid it from adults in texts, chats and private posts.
“We never had these tools,” Falaro said. “Before, you might get bullied or called names or even beaten up at school, but at the end of the day you went home. Today, it doesn’t stop there. It follows kids home.”
As the former principal of Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, Falaro is well-acquainted with a Connecticut law that requires districts to notify police when bullying allegations are criminal in nature, that allows students and parents to report bullying anonymously, and that directs principals to alert both the accused’s and the accuser’s parents when a bullying charge surfaces.
The intent of the law — Public Act 11-232 — was to create a record of complaints and a district’s efforts to address them, should an investigation be opened, Falaro said. “It’s supposed to be a vehicle for kids to feel safe reporting bullying, and it’s also supposed to hold districts accountable if, it turns out, there’s an investigation into an incident," she said.
But Falaro questioned how school administrators can be expected to monitor their students on a wide-open internet. They can block certain sites on school-owned computers, she said, but that’s about it. Children can be harassed at all hours and across all platforms, unbeknownst to their teachers and parents.
“We can’t just sit back and not try to do anything about this,” she said. “But how much can you do? How can schools really control this?”
“The way everything is now,” she added, “all the anger I see in kids, the stuff they say about each other anonymously, the videos and the pictures — I’m glad I’m not growing up right now.”