Two Florida girls who allegedly harassed and bullied 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick before she committed suicide last month were arrested Monday night on felony charges of aggravated stalking.
The girls, who are 12 and 14 years old, are accused of threatening to beat Rebecca up and sending her messages encouraging her to kill herself. “Drink bleach and die,” one of the messages reportedly said.
Authorities have been investigating the harassment since Rebecca jumped to her death last month. They’ve said as many as 15 girls may have been involved in the online bullying that they believe was a factor in her suicide.
The case is the latest – and involves one of the youngest victims – of a number of suicides that have brought increased attention to the problem of cyberbullying. But experts focused on the issue say that cases that end in suicide are still relatively rare and that criminalizing cyberbullying isn’t necessarily the best approach to stopping it.
“It’s a tragic case, it’s an extreme case, and there were a lot of people involved in bullying this girl in some pretty significant ways: It was not your run-of-the-mill cyberbullying,” says Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and co-author of the book “Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral,” which will be released in December.
But, he adds, “I don’t think more criminalization of cyberbullying is necessary. As this case will help us to determine, there are laws on the books that could be applied to extreme forms of cyberbullying.”
Based on officials’ description of the behavior in this case, it was extreme. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd says his decision to arrest the two girls was hastened when he realized they still had access to social media and that the 14-year-old girl posted over the weekend that she had bullied Rebecca and didn’t care.
"We decided that we can't leave her out there. Who else is she going to torment, who else is she going to harass?" Sheriff Judd said at a news conference Tuesday. He added that he was distressed to find the girls were still using social media. “If we can find any charges we can bring against their parents, we will," he said.
The bullying apparently started last year when the older girl started dating a boy Rebecca had been seeing. That girl later persuaded the younger girl, who had been Rebecca’s best friend, and other girls to join in the bullying, Judd said. What began as intimidation and physical bullying migrated online.
When the bullying didn’t stop after Rebecca’s mother notified the school, her mother pulled her out last winter and began homeschooling her, got her psychiatric treatment, took away her cellphone, and closed her Facebook account.
This fall, Rebecca started at a new school, but the harassment apparently continued, mostly through cellphone message applications like Ask.fm and Kik, which her mother didn’t know she was using. “Wait a minute, why are you still alive?” read one message that was released at an earlier news conference.
On Sept. 9, Rebecca changed her username on one application to “that dead girl,” messaged several friends to say goodbye, and jumped to her death at an abandoned cement plant.
Rebecca was “absolutely terrorized on social media,” Judd said at a news conference right after the suicide.
Given the extremity of this case, the criminal charges that have been brought against two of the girls (the sheriff’s office is still investigating and may bring more charges) are probably appropriate, say Mr. Patchin and others.
But they caution against using extreme cases like this to justify a broader criminalization of cyberbullying.
Florida, in fact, is one of 49 states that has an antibullying law on the books, and it's one of 47 states that includes “electronic harassment” in its definition of bullying. But, like most states, it gives the authority to address bullying to schools, not to law enforcement. The schools have the authority to address cyberbullying whether or not it occurs on school grounds or during school hours, if it is affecting the learning environment at school.
The girls in this case face third-degree felony charges that are completely separate from bullying statutes.
Lately, says Patchin, there’s also been a push to criminalize bullying behavior, out of a desire to hold people accountable and as a deterrent for other would-be bullies.
But, he says, “I’m not convinced that teens are much deterred by threat of legal punishment.” Research shows that teens are much more influenced by their informal relationships – with peers, parents, educators – than by any threat of legal consequence. In the more typical cyberbullying cases, he says – in which kids say mean things about each other online, but may not realize the seriousness of what they’re doing – education, rather than criminalization, is what’s needed.
Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, which works to combat cyberbullying, agrees. In many cyberbullying cases, adults are the truly negligent ones, not responding even when bullying has been brought to their attention, she says.
“If you’ve got parents removing a child from school because she was being cyberbullied, then you have administrators who didn’t step up and stop this,” says Ms. Willard, referring to the school Rebecca attended last year.
Like Patchin, Willard says there are extreme cases in which “youth behavior crosses the line and becomes criminal behavior,” and this may be one of those times, but she also says she hopes that the case focuses on the actions of the accused girls separate from the suicide itself.
Willard also worries that too much of the messaging to teens right now is that bullying and cyberbullying can cause suicide – and that this message can encourage young people to use “you should kill yourself” as a bullying technique, in turn leading some teens to believe that suicide is an appropriate response.
Research shows that there is increased risk of suicide both for young people who are being bullied and those who are engaged in bullying, but “there are always multiple factors involved in a decision to suicide," Willard says.
The most successful prevention programs, she adds, aren’t ones that adopt a zero tolerance approach or lecture students about bullying, but those that focus on the school climate: offering supports for positive behavior and social-emotional learning, encouraging data collection, and shifting away from zero tolerance toward “resiliency, remorse, remediation, and restoration.”
In Rebecca’s case, the school has said it responded to complaints of bullying by changing Rebecca’s schedule, but Rebecca’s mother has said in interviews that it didn’t do enough and that she was forced to remove Rebecca from the school as a result.
One 2010 study, Willard says, showed that only 42 percent of students who were bullied at a moderate to a very severe level reported the bullying to the school. After they reported, just 34 percent said things got better, and 29 percent said they got worse.
“Here’s my question for school administrators,” says Willard. “What grade would we give a student if they took a test with 100 questions, only answered 42, and only got 14 questions correct? That’s the level of effectiveness we are at in bullying prevention.”
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
[Editor's note: A previous headline for the story misspelled Rebecca Sedwick's last name.]