When Florida Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd called a press conference last fall to announce the arrest of two juvenile girls on aggravated stalking charges, he said that the girls essentially drove 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick to commit suicide through relentless online bullying.
“Rebecca was absolutely terrorized on social media,” Sheriff Judd said at one press conference, asserting that up to 15 students may have been involved.
The case, seemingly an egregious example of another instance in which teenage bullying was to blame for a suicide, drew international media attention and reignited a conversation about the dangers of bullying, and cyberbullying in particular.
But just a month after charges were filed, they were dropped because of insufficient evidence.
And now, reviews of the police files for the case paint a far more complex picture of what Rebecca was dealing with – including family problems with her mother, stepfather, and father; a history of self-cutting, and a breakup with an Internet boyfriend just before her suicide. The reviews of the police files also reveal little evidence of the online bullying that Judd said was so pervasive.
The files have caused some bullying experts to criticize the way in which the case was handled and to paint it as a cautionary tale of too quickly drawing assumptions along the accepted story line that the public and news media now look for – blaming suicide on bullying.
“The more I look at these files, the more livid I am at this sheriff,” says Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, which works to combat cyberbullying, and author of “Positive Relations @ School (& Elsewhere).” Ms. Willard has extensively reviewed all the police files for the case.
“In his first press conference ... Sheriff Judd made the assertion that Rebecca had been tormented through social media by up to 15 girls for over a year,” Willard says. “Just recently, I received a message from his public information office that stated, ‘We received 26,000 pages of chat log that were of no value to the criminal investigation.’ My conclusion is that his brazen assertion had absolutely no basis in any evidence.”
Judd’s office stands by its decision, and there is evidence that “clearly supported the charges of Aggravated Stalking,” says spokeswoman Carrie Eleazer in an e-mail to the Monitor. “One suspect we arrested is now receiving help through diversionary programs offered to her by the State Attorney’s Office in exchange for her charges being dropped. The other suspect has been and is participating in voluntary counseling arranged by her family. These are positive outcomes and ones that we support.”
At the time of their arrests, Katelyn Roman was 12 and Guadalupe Shaw 14.
A review of police files shows that Rebecca was involuntarily committed and evaluated for “suicidal ideation” nearly a year before her death, and that “Rebecca’s stressors were the arguments between her mom and stepdad and Rebecca’s biological father not being a constant part of her life.”
It reveals conflicts with other students at her school – from which she withdrew in February 2013 – both around a boyfriend and students calling her a “liar.” That label was apparently due to an abuse report that she filed against her mother, which was later judged to be false. Rebecca was also cutting herself – something she attributed to bullying in February.
The police files contain numerous allegations by various students of “bullying” that occurred, but little in the way of actual chats or transcripts from social media that could be used as evidence.
“There was a period of maybe a little more than a month of teen drama” mostly around a boyfriend, Willard says, “followed by zero reports of anyone witnessing any further bullying.”
“Arguments and disagreements over a boyfriend is teen drama; it’s not bullying,” she adds, noting that “by the time police officers started doing all the questioning at school, all of the news media was out there saying Rebecca was being bullied, so that’s the language the students were using.”
Even the famous Facebook post – in which one of the girls allegedly posted nearly a month after Rebecca’s death, “Yes, I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself but I don't give a [expletive]” – is probably “the profoundly anguished posting of a young girl who is being accused of causing another child to [commit] suicide,” Willard says. (The girl’s parents state she couldn’t have posted the statement, since she was in bed, with no access to a computer, at the time it was posted.)
Rebecca was clearly grappling with suicide for some time before her death. She had been conducting Internet searches that seemed to point to ways of harming herself. In her diary, she made a list of “bad things I got called today” and “good things I got called today”: Under “bad” were words like “stupid,” “slut,” and “ugly”; the good side included “smart,” “pretty,” and “nice.” At the bottom of the page she wrote “suicidal.”
In an interview with the Lakeland Ledger on Monday, a local newspaper, Rebecca’s mother, Tricia Norman, strongly took issue with the idea that family problems played a role in Rebecca’s suicide.
“I really don't think there was any other factors involved" beyond bullying, Ms. Norman told The Ledger. "Her home life with me was fine. The only issue was me and her stepdad argued sometimes, but all kids have parents that argue. It wasn't anything upsetting her or making her miserable or anything else.”
She did say that Rebecca had at least two instances of deliberately “scratching” herself to gain attention from her father, but reiterated her conviction that bullying was what made her take her life. "What Rebecca was upset over in her life was these girls not leaving her alone," Norman said.
Numerous references are made to possible bullying in police interviews with classmates, but there is scant evidence in the files of actual bullying and no transcripts of online interactions between Rebecca and the two girls charged with stalking.
Screen shots of “anonymous” comments made to Rebecca on Ask.fm, a social networking tool, have been released, saying things like “Nobody cares about you” and “you seriously deserve to die.” But the tone of the “conversations” at least raises the possibility that they were an example of “suicide ideation” on Rebecca’s part and that she posted them herself, says Willard, noting that there are other examples of that occurring.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Judd said that he and his deputies tried to obtain records from overseas social media companies without success. He also said that some of the evidence and conversations they heard about seemed to have been deleted.
"Rebecca was a very fragile child," Judd told the AP. "Rebecca's wagon was already pretty heavily burdened with bricks. And we never said that bullying was the only reason Rebecca committed suicide. But what the bullies did is that they continued to stack bricks on an already-overloaded wagon, till finally it broke."
But Willard and others say the case was a clear example of the dangers of pinning too much blame on bullying while ignoring other factors that may have played a role in suicide. They also criticize Judd for the very public way in which his office brought charges against the two girls, including naming them and identifying them with photos, despite the fact that they were juveniles.
When the charges were dropped in November, the lawyer for one of the girls said it was “reckless” that charges had been brought.
“What I didn’t like, right from the beginning, about how Rebecca’s case was handled is that it was prosecuted in the public,” says Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a criminal justice professor at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire.
“The sheriff went public with everything so quickly,” he says. “Even if the allegations against two minors were confirmed, it still should have been handled privately in juvenile court.”
In response, Ms. Eleazer of the sheriff’s office told the Monitor, “The name, address, photo, and charges against a juvenile arrested for a felony in the state of Florida is public record. Our release of their information was done so in compliance with this law.”
Professor Patchin and Willard both say that research shows a connection between bullying and suicide, but emphasize that establishing a direct cause can be very difficult. Most cases also involve other factors, including depression and mental health issues.
According to the 2011 National Crime Victimization Survey, about 9.2 percent of students – some 1.2 million students – report that someone was “hurtful” to them at school once or twice a week. Of that number, 540,000 said someone was hurtful “almost every day.”
“Many kids get bullied, and that vast majority don’t commit suicide or think seriously about committing suicide,” Patchin says.
Willard agrees, saying she’s troubled by the rapidity with which the public seems to want to point fingers at other children for almost every suicide these days, even when the evidence isn’t there – or to “blame and arrest children” while ignoring other factors that may have been even more of a driver toward suicide.
She’s concerned, too, that publicizing a message that bullying leads to suicide may inadvertently be leading to more suicides, as students take home the message that “if they’re being bullied, suicide is an option they should consider.”
Both Willard and Patchin say bullying – both online and in person – is a major problem that is not being addressed well by schools. But they also say that criminalization of bullying – or exaggerating its role – isn’t the best way to go about stopping it.
“Sometimes bullying is a major factor [in a suicide], sometimes it is a contributing factor, sometimes a hurtful incident can be a trigger,” says Willard. “But bullying is never the only factor in a young person’s decision to [commit] suicide.”
• Staff writer Stacy Teicher Khadaroo contributed to this report.