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What Led to the Suicide of Phoebe Prince

Aired December 4, 2011 - 21:00   ET



PIERS MORGAN, HOST: Tonight, a mother's nightmare. Her teenage daughter bullied to death.

ANNE O'BRIEN, MOTHER OF PHOEBE PRINCE: You put layers over that -- that pain. But it doesn't ever go away.

MORGAN: Phoebe Prince's mother in her first and only television interview on what pushed her daughter over the edge.

O'BRIEN: You don't expect to come home and find that your amazing kid has been pushed to such a limit.

MORGAN: And what she thinks could have saved Phoebe.

O'BRIEN: I think that had school intervened, that Phoebe would still be here, absolutely. She would still be here.

MORGAN: Phoebe Prince's mother and a brand-new worldwide exclusive. This is PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT.


MORGAN: Phoebe Prince's suicide after being bullied by her school classmates drew worldwide attention to the deadly dangers of bullying.

Join me now is Anne O'Brien, Phoebe Prince's mother in her first and only television interview. Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview. Why are you doing it?

O'BRIEN: Well, I think a lot of mistruths have been written about Phoebe, and I think that it was time to take her back, to reclaim her as ours and to put an end to some of the stories that have been going around. And give Phoebe her dignity back.

MORGAN: Yes. But there's been so much speculation about what happened to Phoebe. Were you taken aback by the kind of worldwide attention?

O'BRIEN: Very much so. I didn't expect it at all. But the media got involved pretty much the evening of Phoebe's death when the superintendent got released her name. And it started a whirlwind of intrusion and interest. And the following week, the principal and I believe the superintendent with him sent a letter out to all the parents and they posted it on the school Web site. And they called Phoebe complicated and that she had been seeing an adjustment counselor even though she'd only seen this woman once or twice.

MORGAN: Basically, I'm going to come more to this later. But basic and trying to saying, hey, you know, she -- it was her fault for encouraging people to treat her in this way.

O'BRIEN: That was clear right from -- from the week of Phoebe's death.

MORGAN: Is that what's angered you the most? When you look back on the whole thing, is it the fact that there's been so much buck passing, so much blaming other people? So much trying to say that, you know, she almost brought it on herself? Is that what's really got to you?

O'BRIEN: It was devastating to blame Phoebe. And it was extraordinarily difficult as a teacher. I'm a teacher. And every teacher knows that the students in your classroom, you have a duty of care to them. It's sort of the hidden curriculum to teaching. And then to have -- after Phoebe's death, to see how the school behaved towards Phoebe, after her death and even before, was shocking, absolutely shocking.

And to -- to feel that there was nobody there that was really trying to protect her. And the couple of teachers who did try and help her, I believe one has left the school voluntarily and one was fired for ill health and -- reasons.

And we invited Phoebe's Latin teacher to her funeral. And I specifically requested that she be invited. And I was told she was sick. And two weeks later we got a call from this Latin teacher very distraught because she had wanted to be at Phoebe's funeral, and she was told by the principal that he had decided not to invite her because it was not about her.

MORGAN: So before, during and after, Phoebe was just constantly let down by people who should have been there to protect her, really.

O'BRIEN: Yes. When I enrolled Phoebe in August --

MORGAN: August 2009?


MORGAN: Let's just go back to the start here, Anne. Let's get this in chronological order. I think it's important to do that. I want to know how you feel about every step of the way here.

You bring a family from Ireland to America in the summer of 2009. Why did you do that? What was the motivation?

O'BRIEN: I was taking a career break. And teaching -- I was going -- well, I did, teach in the States (INAUDIBLE). And I thought the girls would get a taste of America. It could be a fantastic year for them. MORGAN: And describe the area in Ireland that you were living before, very rural, very quiet.

O'BRIEN: North Claire. Halfway between Dublin and --

MORGAN: I mean, a tiny, little, rural area, very, very quiet. Very different, I imagine, to the place you arrived to in America?

O'BRIEN: Yes. South Hadley is, you know, larger. It's dominated by Mount Holyoke, which Phoebe and I used to joke about, it looks like it's something off the Harry Potter set, you know. And North Claire is beautiful, but rural and strong community. But not highly populated. You know, it's not a city.

MORGAN: Were you worried about how your children would react when you came to America? How they would adapt?

O'BRIEN: No. Not really. They were both excited about it. I think Lauren -- Lauren struggled a bit more than Phoebe. Phoebe fit right in at the beginning of the school year here.

MORGAN: What kind of girl was she, Phoebe?

O'BRIEN: Extraordinarily intelligent and vivacious and a great sense of humor, and a foodie. She loved her food. Constantly was eating and not putting on any weight. It really wasn't fair.

MORGAN: Was she a confident girl?

O'BRIEN: In ways, she was. And in other ways, she wasn't. And I don't think she -- she wouldn't have been outgoing in some ways, and then in other ways she would have been. I don't know how to describe it.

MORGAN: (INAUDIBLE). I think crucially to how this all plays out, when you enrolled Phoebe at the school, you did tell the officials that she was susceptible to bullying.

O'BRIEN: I did. I did. And that she was vulnerable. The guidance counselor who I met with --

MORGAN: Why did you say that? What happened before that made you feel that?

O'BRIEN: Phoebe, she had -- she had a run-in with some girls before.

MORGAN: In Ireland?

O'BRIEN: Yes. But nothing, nothing too dramatic, at South Hadley at all. But Phoebe would be -- Phoebe kept things to herself. She internalized a lot of pain or stressful situations. So my point of warning the school or, you know, advising the school was that she wouldn't necessarily come right out at the beginning and say, oh, this is happening. She would initially internalize it. MORGAN: and you were doing this as a mother, but also as a teacher yourself. So you know how schools can work. You know how some kids can prey on vulnerable people in a school situation. So you laid down a marker. You said, just keep an eye on Phoebe because she's had a bit of a problem with bullies before.

O'BRIEN: Mm-hmm.

MORGAN: What did they say to you?

O'BRIEN: That will be no problem. And one of the vice principal was actually called on a personal call and asked to keep an eye out for Phoebe.

MORGAN: So they knew. They knew right from the start there was a potential from trouble.

O'BRIEN: They knew right from the start.

MORGAN: When did you discover for the first time that Phoebe was being bullied?

O'BRIEN: November. And it happened, I suppose, 14th, 15th of November. She was very agitated and said to -- and she was getting a ream of texts. And I said "what's going on?" and she said "the girls are at me." And I said, "who?" she said, "you don't want to know. You don't want to know. You don't want to know. It'll blow over, mommy. I will blow over." And I said "you need to let me know." "No, no, no. It'll blow over. It'll blow over."

And then a couple days later the adjustment counselor rang me from school and left a message that she had met Phoebe for the very first time. And that she thought she was just wonderful and charming. And Phoebe could be very charming. And that she thought it would be a good idea for me to just check in with her. And that -- that there was nothing to worry about.

MORGAN: What kind of thing was going on now with Phoebe? What were these girls doing to her? What could you deduce?

O'BRIEN: She wouldn't tell me. And I thought, it must be they're either falling out over -- I don't -- you know, friendships, gossip. Something. And she -- she never said what it was about.

MORGAN: Did she ever say what it was about?

O'BRIEN: Never.

MORGAN: Never?

O'BRIEN: Well, once in December she told me that one -- one of the girls involved in a new incident of bullying kept coming up to her in the hallways and screaming at her. And Phoebe was there. And we were in the kitchen. Phoebe was there with a friend of hers who said, yes. She's known for that. And she does it quite a bit to a lot of people. And Phoebe and I discussed it. MORGAN: Did she know that these girls were using social media like Facebook and so on to bully her as well?

O'BRIEN: But she wasn't -- the bullying on Facebook, the cyber bullying that has been put out by people was just a small component of the bullying of Phoebe. And, yet, it's been taken on as it was predominantly cyber bullying. And yet, it was very little. Most of it, I think, a lot of the nasty comments was put on Facebook after Phoebe died. There were couples that were put on before.

There was one girl who she would have considered a friend, and she was one of the girls who was -- afterwards I found out was one of the girls getting at her that she said in November. She put a nasty message on twitter or something the week that Phoebe died.

MORGAN: Let's take a little break, Anne, come back and talk about the day that Phoebe died and the aftermath. Because a terrible situation became, if it could possibly become, became even worse by the way that everyone reacted. It's OK. We're going have a break.



GUS SAYER, SOUTH HALEY SCHOOLS SUPERINTENDENT: She didn't reveal to people what she was being subjected to. And unfortunately, until January 7th, we were not aware of what she was being subjected to. So there was very little way we could have intervened in the bullying that took place.


MORGAN: That was South Hadley school superintendent Gus Sayer speaking to CNN months after Phoebe Prince's suicide. Phoebe's mother, Anne O'Brien, is back with me now.

Anne, we'll come to what Gus Sayer said in a few moments. Take me back to this awful day when you discovered that Phoebe had taken her life.

O'BRIEN: Well, it was -- it was stunning. Because -- I knew she was under stress. And I was worried for her safety. And I had told her that the night before I had called the school the week before and spoke again to the adjustment counselor, which was probably about the third time I had spoken with her since November. And -- shocked. I -- stunned. You don't expect to come home and -- and find that your amazing kid has been pushed so -- to such a limit. And I had booked her a ticket to return to Ireland to take a break. And she just needed to hold on for two weeks. And I was at a loss to explain to anyone exactly how intense it had become because I wasn't being told by the school. And I remember telling the police who had to -- to tell me, that she had been being bullied. That, you know, this -- this bright, beautiful girl who was so excited to go to the cotillion --

MORGAN: Had she confided in anybody about how bad she was feeling?

O'BRIEN: I don't think until the last day, really. I think -- and even then, she wouldn't have confided completely. I think having gone through with the police exactly what happened and what was being said --

MORGAN: I mean it's an appalling litany of abuse on her last day. She was in the school library. Someone had written swear words and racial slurs next to her name. After school they chanted profanities at her. As she walked. The bullies threw a can of energy drink over her. This is taking bullying to a whole new level. This is a systematic abuse of somebody, isn't it?

O'BRIEN: Yes. Yes, it is. It was almost torment. You know?

MORGAN: One of the bullies the next day was overheard saying, "done." Posted on Facebook.

O'BRIEN: Yes. We --

MORGAN: I mean, I can't think of a more callous thing for somebody to do. To drive somebody to suicide and they just put "done" on Facebook?

O'BRIEN: Well, she got what she deserved, that was another one.

MORGAN: Another one was overheard saying, apparently, before Phoebe died, why doesn't someone just convince her to kill herself? I mean, this is really -- its depraved behavior by these other kids. What do you think was driving it? Why were they so determined to force Phoebe into what eventually happened?

O'BRIEN: I honestly don't know. Because it's -- that level of aggression towards another human being is just beyond my understanding.

MORGAN: It's wicked, isn't it?

O'BRIEN: It's astounding that there was never a stop mechanism, you know, internal stop mechanism for some of these kids to say, this is going too far. But I also think the culture in the school helped enable that.

MORGAN: Well, Gus Sayer, the superintendent, he made it pretty clear. Don't blame us. Not our fault. We knew nothing about any of this.

O'BRIEN: That's not true. It's not true.

MORGAN: What is your reaction when you see, again, Gus Sayer saying that so soon after Phoebe died?

O'BRIEN: It was -- it was very painful because, you know, you realize as a parent that no matter what I did, no matter how many times I called the school, no matter how many people I might have spoken to there, that she didn't stand a chance there. MORGAN: What did you find out after her death about what else had been going on that you weren't aware of?

O'BRIEN: I didn't know that there were a fairly good number of teachers who witnessed things. And I never was told. You know, when I called the school in November when I returned the adjustment counselor's call, I did say, well, I am -- you might not be concerned about Phoebe right now, but I am. Because she says the girls are getting at me. And I am concerned. I don't know whether it's over a boy. I don't know whether it's over gossip, how girls gossip about each other. She won't tell me the details. But she is very agitated.

MORGAN: She'd actually been herself to the vice principal's office to say a girl had threatened to beat her up.

O'BRIEN: I didn't know that. I didn't know that until after she died.

MORGAN: And she was just told there's no time for this. Get on with it.

O'BRIEN: She was told to go back to class. And -- I think there were two instances. Beth and Betsy could clear that up with you. I think there was one time when she was just told he was busy, go back to your class. And I think the other time she was told, look, just don't -- don't go talking to any boys, or something. In other words, it is your problem. It is your fault.

MORGAN: How much do you blame the school?

O'BRIEN: As a teacher or as a parent?

MORGAN: Maybe both. If there's a different answer. Maybe both. I mean, was your teacher hat on? Because you would have been --

O'BRIEN: With my teacher hat on, absolutely the school failed. You know, I'm repeating myself. As a teacher, you have a duty of care to your students. I've reported many things that I've seen. You know, or -- or concerned about. And that was not going on at South Hadley.

MORGAN: And as a mother?

O'BRIEN: As a mother, I think that had the school intervened the way they should have intervened, if they had followed up the way they should have followed up, that Phoebe would still be here. Absolutely. She would still be here.

MORGAN: Let's take another break, Anne. I want to come back and talk to you about the dramatic development which was when the bullies got arrested. And they had to be accountable for what they'd done.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Her final text messages were about Sean and the girls that tormented her. She wrote, "I think Sean condoning this is one of the final nails in my coffin. I can't take much more. And it would be easier if he or any one of them handed me a noose."


MORGAN: That's Phoebe Prince's mother reading Phoebe's last text to two of her bullies in court this past May. And Phoebe's mother, Anne O'Brien, is back with me.

Incredibly painful for you to have to go through the court case and also very important, I would imagine for you that in a very unprecedented step, six of the bullies were arrested. They were treated as adults. And went through this court case. Five were convicted.

In the end, they didn't go to prison. They were given probation and community service. Do you feel that justice was done?

O'BRIEN: I'd like to actually clarify, because I know that there are some journalists that -- that think that prison terms were on the cards. We never asked for prison sentence. And it was never on the cards. It really was about accountability, taking responsibility, and we had specifically wanted a community service and probation. And that the community service would really give them a chance to reflect upon their actions.

MORGAN: Do you feel that you got justice for Phoebe?

O'BRIEN: I think even having the charges brought was - was justice for Phoebe and for so many other kids who are bullied that - what Betsy Scheibel and Beth did was they kind of threw down the gauntlet.

MORGAN: The lawyers that helped you.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Well, no. The prosecutor and the district attorney who brought the charges. I think by throwing down that gauntlet, it was a message to schools and to other kids that it's not tolerated. And there is a point where it is criminal behavior. And it's not this, you know, name calling bullying that some people tried to dismiss it as.

MORGAN: They taught people, young people in particular, that bullying has consequences. They can be appalling consequences. Life ruining for everybody concerned. You know, not just for phoebe but for you and your family and friends, for everybody. I mean the circle of people that get so damaged by this kind of thing is huge, isn't it?

O'BRIEN: It's massive. To push another human being, I think, to the point where they can't cope and their coping mechanism snaps and they commit suicide and the effect on the family is - it destroys a family, you know. Tessa, who was Phoebe's older sister and how close they were, and Lauren, having to lose her sister, and that - you know, you never - you're never going to stop grieving that loss. You move on. No. You don't move on. You learn to live with it. You put layers over that - that pain. But it doesn't ever go away.

MORGAN: The reaction of the bullies was mixed and different, I would say. I want to play just a clip of one of them, Sharon Velasquez who appeared on the "Today" show. This is a curious reaction, I thought.


SHARON VELASQUEZ: I want people to not judge me. I want them to leave me alone. I want them to stop saying things to me and, you know, because when I started school, people came up to me and told me to leave because they don't want me here. I want that to stop.


MORGAN: I mean, it seemed a bit me, me, me. You know, leave me alone. Look at how my life's been damaged. When this girl was one of the people responsible for your daughter's death.

O'BRIEN: Well, we asked for a probationary period and community service. So that some reflection could take place.

MORGAN: Has she ever said anything to you, Sharon Velasquez?


MORGAN: Nothing?


MORGAN: Never a word to you?


MORGAN: Did any of them write you?

O'BRIEN: No. I met with Ashley. And Ashley Longe had asked to meet with me for a few times. But it was after I had returned to Ireland. And so when I came back for the depositions in May, I agreed I would meet with her. And as I said in court, that's between Ashley and I. But I was satisfied that Ashley had - Ashley had sincere regret for her actions. And I think that Ashley did so very quickly after Phoebe died realize what she'd participated in.

MORGAN: And the other bullies, Kayla Narey appeared in court and was apparently remorseful. I'll play you a clip of that.


KAYLA NAREY: I am sorry for the unkind things I said to others about you. I am sorry about the unkind posting on my Facebook page. But mostly I am sorry for January 14th of 2010.

(END VIDEO CLIP) MORGAN: Did you feel that remorse was sincere?

O'BRIEN: I did. She used some of the same language that I had used in my victim impact statement.

MORGAN: So it clearly had resonated with her.

O'BRIEN: Yes. She had asked to meet with me the night before the trial. And I - I had - I did say no to that because I was just flying in.

MORGAN: I mean, the really sad thing about this is when you look at these kids, I don't know what the stereotypical image of a bully is particularly. I've never worked in a school. And when I was young, I can't even remember really the make-up of the bullies in school when I was there. I remember some of them. They seem such ordinary kids, you know. It sort of said to me when I saw these interviews that they were giving, both in court and on television and stuff, that this could almost happen at any school in America, any school in the world, couldn't it? Bullying doesn't seem to have a kind of remit for how you look or sound or anything.

O'BRIEN: That's right. That's right. I think it - in South Hadley, I think it's part of the culture. I think it's part of the school culture.

MORGAN: And as a teacher, do you feel that very strongly? That these things are allowed to happen unless you put a lid on them?

O'BRIEN: Oh, yes. I - when I first started teaching at Vansickle in Springfield, a colleague came into a staff - a team meeting and went up to one of the vice principals and said, Greg, named two names, and said "I just heard them talking together about getting at another girl. And she mentioned the name. He wrote the names down. And he said, "Sorry, I've got to go." And he excused himself from the meeting, and he went and he dealt with it immediately. Because there was zero tolerance for that. For any sort of bullying or threatening behavior from student to student. And that wasn't the case for my experience as a parent in South Hadley.

MORGAN: Let's have another break. And I want to bring out now somebody, the district attorney who brought the criminal charges against these bullies.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I wish that I could have known her, been her friend on Facebook, whatever, and told her that she wasn't the only one that would go to sleep at night crying because she felt insecure about herself.



(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ELIZABETH SCHEIBEL, NORTHWESTER, MA DISTRICT ATTORNEY: According to the investigation, the harassment occurred while she studied in the school's library around lunch period, walked in the school's hallway near the end of school day and after school as she walked on Newton Street toward her home.


MORGAN: The former district attorney Elizabeth Betsy Scheibel last year justified the charges against six South Hadley students who bullied Phoebe Prince to her death. Elizabeth (INAUDIBLE) joins me. Elizabeth, Betsy and Beth, her assistant D.A..

Obviously, this was a pretty seismic case, wasn't it, in the fight against bullying? Why this case and what have been the repercussions legally since you took the actions you took?

SCHEIBEL: Well, simply put the evidence brought us to the point where charges were appropriate. It was an 11-plus week investigation with numerous witnesses involved. We heard early on that bullying was potentially the cause of Phoebe's death. And so - or at least that she had been bullied in the months preceding her death. And it was that investigation talking with investigators, with Phoebe's mom, Anne, and Jeremy, her dad, that led us to that point.

MORGAN: Beth, how did the school behave, do you think? I mean, obviously I think Anne's very powerful comments earlier have to be taken in the spirit of she's a mother grieving for her daughter as much as also being a teacher and so on. From a strictly legal point of view, how culpable do you think the school was in terms of not tackling this bullying before it was too late?

ELIZABETH FARRIS, NORTHWESTERN MASS. ASST. DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Well, we looked at the school behavior. And we looked at their culpability. And we came to a conclusion that it was troublesome but it wasn't criminal. But the fact that it wasn't criminal doesn't mean that they had many acts of omission. That if they had interceded at the right time, we join in Anne's and Jeremy's conclusions that Phoebe may not have done what she did on January 14th.

MORGAN: I mean the school's deal with bullying properly just have zero tolerance, doesn't? They stand down on this kind of thing quickly, when I listen to Gus Sayer, I can see Anne reacting pretty angrily to what he was saying even so long after the event. You know, there's a kind of denial there in his behavior, I thought. Did you pick up on that?

SCHEIBEL: Oh, absolutely. There was a denial of any - any - not only wrong doing, but I think any inaction that may have contributed to not protecting Phoebe. And let's face it, the school had a duty to protect her while she was in school. And there were a number of incidences that occurred that were either done in the vicinity or area of teachers or other school personnel, you know, whether they heard that talk, the actions or not, we don't know. They say not. But clearly it was a failure to connect the dots. All the information was there. All the classic signs of a student who's doing well at the beginning of the school year, begins to go down academically, has stomach aches, things of that nature, that should have been a red flag. Had someone taken the time to connect those dots.

MORGAN: Beth, obviously a decision that they were tried as adults for legal purposes. How did that come about and what have been the implications of that for future cases now involving bullying?

FARRIS: Well, they were tried as youthful offenders. Those that fit our - that were under the age of 17. Those that reached the age of 17 were tried as adults. That decision was made to try to keep some equality in relation to how they were going to be handled within the criminal justice system. I think it also sent a message in relation to our view that these cases weren't going to be hidden behind the juvenile court system and its veil of secrecy. It needed to be put out in the public. It needed to have some kind of resonance that there were going to be very stiff consequences if this action continued in the future.

MORGAN: We're still seeing bullying cases. We're still seeing tragic stories of young people losing their lives. It's clearly not just going to stop overnight. But do you feel that what happened with this case is making a real impact now on bullying in schools in America?

SCHEIBEL: I think in some ways, yes. I think it - it certainly began a national and international dialogue. And in that regard, it's been very helpful and very important. I wonder what the long-term effects will be. Whether we can sustain that level of discussion. And make the necessary changes so that we change the culture.

MORGAN: I mean, there is now Phoebe's law in the state of Massachusetts. In simple terms, what is that law?

SCHEIBEL: Well, it doesn't - essentially what it does is it mandates the schools to report incidences of bullying should they believe that that - an act is one of bullying. It also mandates, and I think and I know Beth agrees that what's really critical is the training for school personnel on what is relational aggression, what is bullying and how can that be stopped. And so that's really important. And I hope that that'll go on.

MORGAN: Coming up , what would you like the legacy to be?

O'BRIEN: Well, ideally, I would like it to be that - to treat children in a more civilized manner and know boundaries. But I'm not one too hopeful about that.


MORGAN: Let me turn finally to you, Anne. Clearly, incredibly emotional thing for you to have to talk about even now. I can see that the agony that you still go through with this. And I totally understand this. I know that you were very struck by the reaction of the public after Phoebe died. Tell me about that. Must have been some comfort to you that there was such this outpouring of support and love for you.

O'BRIEN: Oh, it was. It was overwhelming. We received hundreds if not thousands, of letters in - offering prayers, thoughts, condolences. And hundreds of stories from people who had either been bullied or had lost a child and felt that it was a result of the child being bullied. And it's - it was kind of heartwarming to hear from complete strangers during a time when there was some negative focus on Phoebe and it kind of gave a little bit of beacon light.

You had Kevin Cullen and Laura Marlow from the "Irish Times" and Donna Lynch from the "Irish Independent" wrote a very supportive piece but there was a lot of salacious stuff being written and yet the public in America kept writing these letters of support. And that was - it just made you - it made it easier to get through what were some pretty dark, dark days.

MORGAN: You set up a scholarship in Phoebe's name. What would you like her legacy to be given the appalling events that led to her death and the fact that nothing can bring her back. What would you like the legacy to be?

O'BRIEN: Well, ideally I would like it to be that humans just treat each other in a more civilized manner and no boundaries. But I'm not to hopeful about that.

MORGAN: You're not?

O'BRIEN: No, I'm not. I - I think if I were to say, oh, yes and now Phoebe has died so everyone is going to now be nice to each other, it would just be naive and -

MORGAN: I think that's right. I think the crucial aspect of this that makes it different is the action that you took legally to bring these kids to book, to get some kind of accountability. And actually if the legacy is that in future, schools are just more aware, they take more action earlier and some lives can be saved rather than lost because of what's happened, that is at least a positive that comes out of this hell for you, isn't it?

O'BRIEN: Oh, absolutely. I think that Betsy and Beth have changed how bullying is viewed. And if that's Phoebe's legacy, then that's OK.

MORGAN: Anne, thank you very much for coming. And to you, Betsy and Beth. Thank you both very much.

SCHEIBEL: Thank you.



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