Charges dropped in Rebecca Sedwick suicide case. Did the system work?

Two Florida girls were accused of bullying Rebecca Sedwick before her suicide. The case exemplifies the complexities of responding to youth bullying in an effective, responsible way.

Calvin Knight/The Ledger/AP/File
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd talks about the events leading up to the arrest of two Florida girls accused of bullying Rebecca Sedwick before she died by suicide at a press conference in Winter Haven, Fla., Oct. 15, 2013.

Criminal charges have been dropped against two Florida girls accused of bullying Rebecca Sedwick before she died by suicide. Were the police overzealous, or did the system work as it should, bringing about accountability even though stopping short of a criminal trial?

To Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who originally publicized the charges, the outcome is satisfactory because the girls will receive “the services they need,” he said Thursday. "Our goal is that these kids never bully anyone again, never torment anyone again."

To attorney Jose Baez, representing the 12-year-old accused (who has since turned 13), the juvenile charge of third-degree felony stalking against his client was “reckless,” and there was “zero evidence having to do with my client that would rise to the level of a criminal act,” he said at a news conference Thursday. He added that Sheriff Judd owed the girl an apology and that a lawsuit against him was a possibility.

The case exemplifies the complexities of responding to youth bullying in an effective, responsible way.

The sheriff may have been doing his best to respond to the community’s desire to see someone doing something in response to the cruel treatment of Rebecca, but there are downsides to his approach, various experts on bullying and juvenile justice say.

“I don’t think it’s viable that ... the threat of serious formal punishment will act as deterrent.... Kids don’t consider the long-term consequences.... They don’t think they’ll get caught and punished,” says Justin Patchin, codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

But he says he understands Judd’s desire to do something. “The behavior needed to be addressed earlier – in homes, in schools, and in communities, and it just didn’t [happen]. That was a missed opportunity for a lot of people along the way.”

In the wake of the public accusations against the girls, whose identities were revealed in some news stories, they’ve already faced one type of punishment: public vilification that some say is unwarranted and dangerous.

“We jump right away when there’s a death to criminalizing the other kids’ behaviors, and that should not have happened so quickly until all the facts had come in,” says Barbara Coloroso, an author on bullying and CEO of Kids Are Worth It! in Littleton, Colo. The girls have not been convicted of any crime, but “people are issuing death threats against them on the Internet,” she says.

Among the hateful comments were those in response to an October New York Post story about the arrest of the girls. One commenter implied they should be killed and referred to them as “degenerates.”

“The two girls involved have been demonized online,” Mr. Patchin says. “Their behaviors were wrong, were hurtful, were inappropriate, but does that make it right for society as a whole to publicly condemn them in the way that we did? I don’t think so.”

Katelyn Roman, the now-13-year-old, appeared on NBC's "Today" show with her parents Thursday. The family said she did not do what she was accused of. When asked if she felt she had done anything wrong, she said, "No." When asked what she learned from the incident, she said, "When you have a chance, stand up to bullies."

After initially blaming the girls for driving Rebecca to kill herself, Judd stepped back and acknowledged later that she had a troubled home life and that bullying was probably only one contributing factor. He also said he’d like to see laws allowing schools to mandate counseling or anger management so that bullying cases don’t get to the point of criminalizing children, according to CBS News.

But the damage is already done, some say. The legal system “should never have released the names and photos of the girls.... This is contrary to all principles of juvenile justice. These are kids. They make mistakes. They should not have to live with a lifetime of public shame because of this,” writes Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, in an e-mail to the Monitor.

What’s difficult to judge, however, is whether the prosecutor dropped charges because of lack of evidence or for other common reasons, such as a need to winnow down the caseload, says Jesse Weins, a criminal justice professor at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D. It may be that the accused are receiving counseling and the prosecutor thinks that’s sufficient, or it may even be that the prosecutor believes “the perpetrators have already received bigger forms of punishment than the system would provide,” because of how publicly they’ve been shamed, he says.

Increasingly, communities are resorting to a more “restorative justice” approach to juvenile crimes, Professor Weins notes, which many antibullying experts favor.

Restorative justice needs to be a way of “truly holding [bullies] accountable” and includes bullies “owning what they’ve done and trying to repair it,” Ms. Coloroso says. If they’ve cyberbullied, for instance, they could be asked to hire Internet “scrubbers” to remove the material, and then they could have digital media restrictions or formal monitoring for a time.

Schools, parents, and Internet service providers all have to play a role in shutting down bullying, Coloroso says. “This should be a wake-up call for all of us.... What can each one of us do ... to stop it sooner, before a young girl feels there’s nothing left to do and the young girls who are targeting her get caught in a web that they can’t get themselves out of?”

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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