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Rebecca Sedwick suicide: Parents to blame for their bullying children? (+video)

Rebecca Sedwick committed suicide largely because of online bullying, authorities in Florida say. The sheriff wants to bring charges against the bullies' parents. 

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In her son’s case, Johnston says, the cyberbullying took place over three years, and despite the bully’s parents being notified about his actions against her son and other students, they continued to give him access to the home computer and to allow the cyberbullying to go on unchecked.

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“He killed my son as surely as if he crawled through the window, put a gun to his head, and pulled the trigger,” says Johnston. “And those parents loaded the gun that allowed him to do it…. They gave him the computer, gave him access, even when they knew for three years that he was hurting not just my child but others as well.”

The law Johnston helped get passed in Florida in 2008 is comprehensive, she says. It requires all districts to implement antibullying policies that require prompt investigation of allegations, create a mandatory reporting procedure, and outline consequences for violation of the policy. Victims’ families must be notified about what’s been done to protect their children – information Johnston says she couldn’t get when her son was being bullied, even though she was also a teacher in the school he attended – and bullies must be referred to counseling.

Still, it’s not clear what steps Rebecca's school took when notified about the bullying, and her mother has said they did not do enough. Johnston says she’s glad that Judd is prosecuting the two girls in this instance – who have been arrested on third-degree felony charges of aggravated stalking – in part because such cases, she hopes, can help set a precedent for the reach of the law.

“It’s been a long uphill battle to get schools and law enforcement simply to enforce laws already on the books to protect the civil rights of children,” she says.

Still, some cyberbullying experts say that real solutions to the problem may need to begin not with adults or law enforcement, but with peers and a changed culture.

In Rebecca’s case, as many as 15 other girls were reportedly involved in the bullying, and likely many more who were aware of it, says Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, which works to combat cyberbullying. And yet none of them seem to have stepped in to stop it.

“The critical issue is that these kinds of hurtful interactions are occurring in environments where adults are not present,” says Ms. Willard in an e-mail. “The current bullying prevention approaches are all adult-centric – adults make rules, supervise students, and punish those who violate the rules. School officials and parents are not making the rules for websites, they are not present in teen digital environments, and if they punish a student this can lead to uncontrollable digital retaliation. The players who we need to have get involved are the teens. So how do we do this?”

The challenges are numerous, Willard says: Many teens may fear negative consequences or embarrassment from stepping in, or incurring retaliation from the bully or the bully’s friends. And peer norms, she says, can be powerful. Teens may think others perceive that the person being hurtful is “cool” – even if that’s not accurate.

“We have to help them understand the high regard that teens hold of those who do step in to help,” Willard says. “We need to help students learn … how important it is to reach out to be kind publicly or privately to someone who is being hurt. How they can work as a team with several others to safely publicly tell someone to stop. How and why they should tell a friend who is being hurtful to stop. And when the situation has turned to high-risk that needs to be reported to an adult who can help.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report

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