Does Charging Juveniles in Bullying Death Case Divert Attention from Responsibility of Parents and School Officials?

Monday, October 21, 2013
Rebecca Sedwick (family photo)

On the morning of September 10, 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick of Lakeland, Florida, texted a message to a boy whom she reportedly met once at the airport: “I’m jumping and I can’t take it anymore.” Hours later, Rebecca plummeted to her death from the top of a silo at a disused cement plant. For more than a year, she had been the target of a merciless bullying campaign orchestrated by a 14-year-old schoolmate.

 

But the schoolmate continued the bullying even after Rebecca’s death. About a month later, the older girl posted on her Facebook page the following: “Yes ik [I know] I bullied Rebecca [a]nd she killed her self but IDGAF [I DON’T GIVE A FUCK] ♥”, according to press reports.

 

Several days later, Polk County Sheriff’s Deputies arrested the 14-year-old, as well as a 12-year-old ex-friend of Rebecca who joined in the bullying. “That post was the tipping point,” said Polk Sheriff Grady Judd during a Tuesday press conference. “She forced this arrest.” Authorities have charged the girls with aggravated stalking, a felony that carries a maximum penalty of juvenile probation or placement in a residential-commitment program for five years or until the 19th birthday — whichever comes first. According to affidavits filed in the case, the state is alleging that the girls’ actions were “a contributing factor” in Sedwick’s suicide.

 

Although the bullying was extreme—including “name-calling, intimidation, threats to beat her up, and at least one actual physical fight,” according to the Sheriff’s report—the law has historically been hesitant to cast criminal liability in such cases. In addition to the older bully’s cold confession on Facebook, factors tipping the scales for prosecution included the fact that the girls barraged their victim with messages specifically urging her to commit suicide and the failure of their families to cooperate with the investigation. Witnesses told police they heard the 14-year-old tell Sedwick she should “drink bleach and die,” and cell-phone records revealed numerous messages such as “You’re ugly,” “Why are you still alive?” and “Go kill yourself.” 

 

But some experts on bullying question the wisdom of bringing criminal charges against such young girls for behavior that is, they hasten to add, all too common. “The decision to charge them almost seems to take responsibility away from the adults,” argued Nadine Connell, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas, who thinks adolescents are too immature to grasp the consequences of bullying, and that the real blame should be placed on parents and school officials for failing to intervene more decisively.

 

Connell also criticized Florida’s policy of releasing the girls’ names which may make it nearly impossible for them to put this behind them someday. “You’ve lost three girls instead of just one,” she said.

 

Sue Scheff, who runs Parent’s Universal Resource Experts, a controversial company that places troubled teens in treatment facilities, praised the decision. “Hats off to the sheriff,” she said. “I think it’s great. I think parents need to wake up and be shaken up a little bit. If they were old enough to be on social media sites, or mature enough to be using the language that they were using ... they should be held accountable,” she said.

 

While Emily Bazelon, who is Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School and an expert on bullying, believes bullies should indeed be held accountable, she argues that felony charges against children are really a way to evade the responsibility of adults like parents, school officials, and law enforcement for failing to regulate the behavior of minors and prevent tragedies like this.

-Matt Bewig

To Learn More:

Charging Young Girls for Bullying Classmate who Killed Herself Called ‘Uncharted Territory’ (by Max Ehrenfreund, Washington Post)

Cyberbullying-suicide suspect: Yes, I bullied girl who killed herself (by Arelis Hernández and Jerriann Sullivan, Orlando Sentinel)

Two Girls Charged With Felony Stalking in Rebecca Sedwick Suicide Case. That’s Not the Answer (by Emily Bazelon, Slate)

School Anti-Bullying Programs Found to Produce Smarter Bullies and More Victims (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

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