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Felony Charges In A Cyber-Bullying Death

Felony charges against two girls in the cyber-bullying death of 12-year old Rebecca Ann Sedwick. We’ll look at young tormenters and the law.

Pallbearers wearing anti-bullying t-shirts carry the casket of Rebecca Sedwick,12, to a waiting hearse as they exit the Whidden-McLean Funeral Home Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, in Bartow, Fla. Polk County Sheriff's Office investigators say they believe Sedwick leaped to her death from a structure at an abandoned cement plant last week following months of bullying. (AP)

Pallbearers wearing anti-bullying t-shirts carry the casket of Rebecca Sedwick,12, to a waiting hearse as they exit the Whidden-McLean Funeral Home Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, in Bartow, Fla. Polk County Sheriff’s Office investigators say they believe Sedwick leaped to her death from a structure at an abandoned cement plant last week following months of bullying. (AP)

Unprecedented felony charges this week against two young girls in Florida accused of harassing a 12-year-old classmate so relentlessly that she jumped to her death – suicide – from a lonely industrial tower.  The girls told Rebecca Ann Sedwick she “should go kill herself.”  Rebecca finally did.  The cyber-bullying messages went on even after her death.  No remorse.  Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County said it’s gone too far.  He’s bringing in the full weight of the law.  This is a turning point.  He’s with us.  Up next On Point:  cyber-bullying, young tormentors, and the law.

– Tom Ashbrook


Jerriann Sullivan, reporter at the Orlando Sentinel. (@JerriannOS)

Justin Patchin, professor of Criminal Justice in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, co-director of the Cyberbulling Research Center. Co-author of “School Climate 2.0: Preventing Cyberbullying and Sexting One Classroom at a Time” and “Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying.” Author of the forthcoming, “Words Wound: Delete Cyberbullying and Make Kindness Go Viral.” (@JustinPatchin)

Sheriff Grady Judd, Polk County, FL sheriff. (@PolkCoSheriff)

Sue Shellenbarger, columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

From Tom’s Reading List

Wall Street Journal: The Teen Empathy Gap – “‘Cognitive empathy,’ or the mental ability to take others’ perspective, begins rising steadily in girls at age 13, according to a six-year study published recently in Developmental Psychology. But boys don’t begin until age 15 to show gains in perspective-taking, which helps in problem-solving and avoiding conflict. Adolescent males actually show a temporary decline, between ages 13 and 16, in a related skill—affective empathy, or the ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings, according to the study, co-authored by Jolien van der Graaff, a doctoral candidate in the Research Centre Adolescent Development at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Fortunately, the boys’ sensitivity recovers in the late teens. Girls’ affective empathy remains relatively high and stable through adolescence.”

Slate: Two Girls Charged With Felony Stalking in Rebecca Sedwick Suicide Case. That’s Not the Answer — “While I know that it’s very hard to try to feel compassion rather than loathing for the 12 and the 14 year old in this case right now—and that asking for it will be scorned as making excuses for them—I do think we have to try to understand what was going on behind those loathsome posts.”

Orlando Sentinel: Sheriff in Rebecca Sedwick suicide: Cut cyberbullying cord — “A day after Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd announced the arrest of two girls in the Rebecca Ann Sedwick suicide he appeared on the national television morning shows warning parents of the dangers of cyberbulling. He also vowed to prosecute anyone – children or adults – who commits such crimes. ‘People deserve to live a healthy, normal life,’ Judd told Robin Roberts on ‘Good Morning America’. ‘We will prosecute anyone we can prove has bullied or stalked someone.’”

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  • Matt MC

    Only in America or perhaps North Korea would we prosecute two tweens as adults. Yes, what they did was terrible, but surely we can find a more “adult” way to punish them. This country is just crazy.

    • MOFYC

      Charging them as adults is probably out of order but even if they’re charged as youth, this HAS to be treated as a big deal. They bullied this girl into KILLING herself.

      • fun bobby


        • Matt MC

          I think it is an exaggeration to say the cyberbullying lead directly to her death. As Tom points out, she must have had some underlying vulnerabilities. Also, why the hell didn’t Rebecca’s parents block the bully’s Facebook or block the bully’s cell phone number?

          • fun bobby

            excellent points

  • malkneil

    We can expect more of this. The internet (and more specifically Facebook) is creating a haven for kids to cast rocks at people with impunity. Prior to the internet if you talked smack about someone at school you ran the risk of getting beaten up on the playground. And say what you will about the schoolyard fight but at least it resulted in a bit of social air-clearing where equilibrium was restored after the dust settled. It seems these internet attacks just lead to pent up anger and self-loathing and inevitably escalate to suicide or a school shooting.


    There is no such thing as “cyber bullying.” Bullying is
    bullying, whether it’s verbal, written or physical. A threat is a threat,
    whether it’s online or face to face. And it’s bullying whether it’s done by a
    12 year old or a 42 year old… anyone who’s ever been on an online political
    forum knows that venal nastiness is hardly unique to teenagers.

    • fun bobby

      and should all the trolls go to prison?

      • Matt MC

        Better hope not, fun bobby! :P

        • fun bobby

          you’re telling me

  • fun bobby

    what? if people do not like what they see on their screen they can turn it off. kids are mean are they all going to be put in jail for being mean? what responsibility does this child’s parents have. the bullies did not buy her a computer and pay for her internet connection

    • Matt MC

      I can’t believe it, but I completely agree with fun bobby. I believe this is a sign of the End Times.

      • fun bobby

        its better that it happens now so we don’t end up fighting robots

  • Coastghost

    In spite of and in addition to any feminist angst this lamentable episode testifies to, the generational and demographic wavelet represented in this story is DIRECTLY behind the Millennial cohort: this episode thus illustrates characteristics of the leading edge of the Millennial cohort: true or false? (This episode also challenges the mere assertion that social interaction with technology inherently models sophistication, maturity, and social intellectuality, or any assertion that cognitive ability is necessarily enhanced by mere interaction with technology, or any assertion that the physicality of adolescent hormones cannot find digital outlets when so conveniently supplied.)

  • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

    The problem of bullying is a ubiquitous one that is profoundly vexing and perplexing.

    I can understand Sheriff Grady Judd’s motives in making an example of the perpetrators in this particular case, where he has sufficient evidence to sustain a prosecution.

    The two girls, on the other hand, will probably feel scapegoated, bearing the hate of the community for a commonplace (if reprehensible) cultural practice that pervades our society.

    If the issue is one of promoting a culture capable of cognitive empathy or affective empathy, how shall we resolve the challenge of having empathy for the hapless scapegoat who is made the poster child for a widespread cultural disease?

  • JGC

    More Grady Judd. Less Joe Arpaio.

    • TFRX

      (Isn’t “less Sheriff Joe Arpaio” always a good bit of advice, no matter the subject?)

  • ToyYoda

    These events are terrible, but I’m wondering why the parents of the perpetrator and the victim did not intervene more (if at all)?

    • geraldfnord

      The victim might not have said much about it to her parents; I certainly gave up trying after a couple of attempts, since nothing good came of it. Children and parents live in different worlds…and at least at the beginning, it seems as if parents’ involvement ends up making the situation worse for the victim (the parents alert the staff, the staff either endorse the bullying (honestly, it happens) or punish the bully; in that latter case the bully punishes the victim more.

      Parents of perpetrators often say that the problem is the victim’s ‘not being able to take it’…surprise, many of them are bullies as well—it can be a very rewarding life-strategy.

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    In the olden days, bullying was face to face, and the impact could be no less devastating. It is an expression and indulgence in the darkest side of human nature. It needs to be stopped. Sadly This is not the first bullying induced suicide and worse, won’t be the last.

  • Coastghost

    I hear a new topic: “Social Agency and Suicide”.

  • J__o__h__n

    Criminal charges won’t be a deterrent to child cyber bullies. The idiot even bragged about it on Facebook. The consequences of her actions were not part of her decision making even after the fact.

    • Molly

      Well, there never were consequences before. This is “unprecedented” as has been mentioned. She clearly thought there would be no consequences, that’s why she bragged about it. If she had known that she could be criminally charged, maybe she would have thought twice about doing it in the first place.

      • http://www.openeyesvideo.com/ Glenn C. Koenig

        Perhaps. It’s hard to tell. Some people will never consider consequences because they think normal rules never apply to them. So I don’t think this can be the only method to change this situation.

  • AC

    i’m just listening now, did they say what sorts of comments/frequency the 2 bullies employed?
    also, maybe it’s age and not gender, but it’s interesting she didn’t decide to go on a revenge/killing spree for being ‘out-cast’….

  • Chuck P

    I don’t believe it will deter others but it is appropriate to bring charges against these girls. You can’t be evil to someone else for the sake of being evil.

    On the other side of the argument why do you have to let your kids have access to facebook, especially when they are being bullied on it.

  • Coastghost

    Oh file contributory negligence charges against Facebook, that would be novel legal ground, hunh?

  • geraldfnord

    This is terribly unfair to bullies, who we typically allow to commit stalking, assault, battery, theft and threats of murder and rape punished at most by suspension from the schooling they hate anyway.

    They are allowed this leave in deference to their age, and I think it wrong to charge these children as adults—in fact, calling them ‘children’ in public, repeatedly, should definitely be part of their punishment. But I think that we also forebear because they help pass on some of our most cherished values that have no rational basis and so must be sustained by physical and emotional violence (viz esp. gender rôles). There may also be the feeling that we’d better prepare children to be bullies or to be bullied, as much of the world is run that way, that, in effect, it is only fitting and proper that some be given leave to inflict pain and that anyone not able to defend themselves there from deserves their suffering.

  • Jim

    it is too disappointed no one stood up against the 15 girls + the school administrators who turn a blind eye. I am deeply saddened by the conduct which includes adults in this town of Florida. I think those adults should be ashamed of themselves… ashamed.

    i believe there should be accountability involved on the parents of the bullies and the school administrators.

  • km

    Use of the word “cyber” mitigates the severity of this issue. From
    the Sheriff’s statement, there was a larger scope of stalking, that
    included phone calls, that goes beyond online threats and bullying.

  • Coastghost

    This also begins to sound like parents deferring to the state to make responsible citizens of the children that they are expected to entrust to the state for the children’s education and upbringing in so many (other) domains. The state is here adopting responsibilities that parents find it convenient to shed. One step in the perfection of the nanny state, id est. (Given its manifest capabilities, the state can reliably adjudicate all civil and domestic and social disputes.)

    • gavin

      Absolutely wrong. The “state”, in this sense, public schools, have been hobbled in its ability to provide direction, discipline, or simple reaction to their students’ personal life/behavior for fear of being sued by parents who bristle at what they perceive is a challenge to their parenting and or property. These Barney styled litigious parents can’t have it both ways.

      Why has nobody screamed to charge the parents? They had months to attempt to correct the situation and the fact they first run to the media and lawyers to plead “innocence” for their child screams of their lack of parenting, attention payed outside of their own selfish ideologies, and general barbaric entitlement.

      Charging these kids is the wrong path. I’d be behind charging the parents, however.

  • Wendy O.

    I read “Lord of the Flies” in middle school and the book made me sick. It’s stayed with me for over 40 years now. Why are people acting like this behavior is new?

    • J__o__h__n

      People think anything involving the internet makes it new.

  • Coastghost

    I don’t hear any feminists joining this discussion very loudly, no I don’t . . . nope, still don’t hear them . . . .

    • http://www.openeyesvideo.com/ Glenn C. Koenig

      OK, call me a feminist. I just posted.

      • Coastghost

        But you misconstrue: I want to hear the explicit feminist explication of male or masculine agency in this expression of feminine-on-female vituperation and digital catfighting. I mean, it IS the boyfriend’s fault, right?

        • Sy2502

          Did you have an actual cogent point there you wanted to make?

        • 65noname

          you misconstrue

    • Sy2502

      Feminist here. Anything I can help you with?

  • Doctsc

    Arresting kids is the equivalent of throwing up our hands as adults. And I think adolescents know this.

    • Sy2502

      So you think not holding them accountable for their actions and shielding them fro the consequences is preferable?

      • Doctsc

        Not what I said. But you know that, right?

        • Sy2502

          Well you didn’t really say much to begin with. What consequences should these kids face in your opinion?

  • http://www.openeyesvideo.com/ Glenn C. Koenig

    Criminalizing this can only go just so far. Most people guilty of criminal acts either thought they were justified in what they did or expected to escape getting caught.
    But bringing down the hammer is not really going to help this. Adults getting angry in fact may just make it worse. It is up to us to listen to these kids more, *both* the bullies and the bullied. Look at the principal at the White Pine Middle School, in Ely Nevada, who identified bullies in his school not to punish them, but to find out who they were inside, and plan programs to help experience love, and learn empathy for others.

  • Coastghost

    This case also performs well as a barometer of individualism: are all suicides the fault and responsibility of society itself? do individuals have any responsibility to assert whatsoever to avert (or practice) suicide? (surely, we can no longer credibly maintain any categorical imperative, any deontology that prohibits suicide outright . . . ? )

    • tbphkm33

      Yes, a child under the age of 18 is not mature enough to rationally make the choice of committing suicide. Nor are the mentally ill or those under duress.

      • Coastghost

        That’s a statutory expression or your informed notion? (“Rationality” itself would seem under grave jurisprudential threat these days . . . .)

  • http://www.openeyesvideo.com/ Glenn C. Koenig

    Sadly, the very competitive nature of how school is set up (class standings, sports team awards, etc.) leaves us more and more silent on cooperative and collaborative socialization. We must look to the basic assumptions we have as to how school should work in the first place. The school system itself participates in shaming, or call it bullying if you will, through this system of placing children in a hierarchy which is interpreted by the kids themselves as the ‘smart kids’ versus ‘dumb kids’

    • Coastghost

      Sounds as if cooperative and collaborative socialization failed egregiously in this case. It would seem cooperative and collaborative socialization is not necessarily socially innate, or it would have been practiced irrespective of all social indoctrination the area public schools afford. Trying then to engineer society and citizens from the outside looks to be something of a vain pursuit. The state itself seems innately incapable of forging an organic connection with citizens, no matter how explicit or extensive their attachments are by state patronage. (Nor would I underestimate human stupidity as far as you seem to.)

  • Nowdo

    How about instilling fear in the child doing the bullying. If the bully is threatened by the bullied child’s parent or another authority, perhaps they will stop. Not PC but…

    • TFRX

      Actions ought to have consequences, I agree.

      To demonstrate that a child may get into trouble with an authority figure who has the means to punish a child with stuff such as being grounded at home, or detention at school, or harsher outcomes sounds useful.

      (Tangentially, if that’s not “PC”, I dunno that PC is a term which has meaning any longer.)

      • Nowdo

        Probably. I added the PC bit because it seems like many people are afraid to take things into their own hands for fear of lawsuit or something. I rarely hear about parents of bullied children getting angry at the bully and confronting them themselves. But I may be wong

  • KateRobart

    Bullies are often the bullied as well–I know this from experience when a bully who kept after my son turned out to be the low on the totem pole boy in his grade. Adults are responsible for taking not just punitive action when a bully is active but finding out what is going on with the bully.
    Am listening and the thoughtful woman, Bobbie, talking now has made this point.
    In our case, I happened to know someone who knew the mother of the boy who was the offender and he made a connection so that we could talk. There was never a problem afterwards, but I count us and them lucky.

  • tbphkm33

    I have only read one article on this, but the claim was made that the parents knew sometime ago what was going on and did nothing to stop the behavior. Gross negligence that they should be held accountable for.

    There are vehicular homicide laws for negligence while driving. Similar principle at work here – the parents are some level responsible for the actions of their children.

    • Sy2502

      I totally agree. With minors, the parents are legally responsible, therefore they should be legally and criminally responsible for what their children do. It’s obvious that parents share a large part of responsibility, bullies are often children of bully parents. If parents started to be held criminally responsible, the lost art of parenting may be rediscovered.

      • Coastghost

        But without holding internet service providers to any account at all, whatsoever? If “social networking” is being foisted upon and facilitated so uncritically by parents and children alike, surely some of the responsibility can be traced to the ISPs: or do social networking providers have no social obligations of their own?

        • Sy2502

          Why should Internet providers be held accountable? We don’t hold companies that make hammers accountable if somebody uses their hammer to smash someone’s skull in. Social networks, like hammers, are tools. How the tool is used is entirely the user’s responsibility.

  • liminalx

    Tragic… how about turning OFF the social media. I’m dubious to trust anything in the Florida criminal justice system. And I wonder if and how ethnicity will play out in this case / these charges?

    • Sy2502

      Is that your solution for things? Outlaw them? A certain German gentleman with black hair and a small mustache would have agreed with you.

      • liminalx

        Anytime someone evokes hitler or nazi, it’s because they’ve lost the debate… but I’ll play anyway. Where in anything that I wrote do you find a suggestion of “outlawing” anything?

        I suggest without apology, the parents of 12 and 14 year-old CHILDREN have every responsibility to monitor and control the child’s access to social media and cell phones. And what adult allows 12 year-olds (or even 14) to date. It’s very easy, you deactivate the facebook account, you monitor the child’s computer/web time, and you read their text messages. We’re talking 12 and 14 year olds, they are NOT adults.

        • Sy2502

          You just said “how about turning off social media”. You didn’t say “how about parents know when to turn off their kids’ access to social media”. So I took your post for its literal meaning that you wanted to turn off all social media. If you don’t want your posts to be misinterpreted, try to make them clearer.

          • liminalx

            Yeah, I guess when one can’t see beyond the little mustache under their nose it’s easy to misinterpret the difference between turn off and ban.

  • tbphkm33

    You bring up a valid point, bullying, or the acceptance of such behavior, is deemed as socially acceptable. I have seen bullying in the workplace, which is shocking. It takes so many forms, such as snickering behind someone’s back.

  • tbphkm33

    Irrelevant to the current discussion. Claiming the victim was under the effects of a medication in no way excuses the behavior of the criminally charged.

  • Sy2502

    Why would that be relevant?

  • myblusky

    It would be great if there was an effective treatment sociopathic behavior- which these two girls have clearly displayed. They will be out in society again one of these days – just like a lot of other sociopaths – and will wreak havoc. I truly believe there is something wrong with their brain – the inability to feel empathy for others is a defect. I don’t think behavior therapy can help. I’m hopeful one day we will understand the brain better than we do now and be able to treat these kinds of problems the same way we treat diabetes.

  • Michele

    I do not excuse the behavior of either child and have no knowledge of the 14 year old’s home life but it seems to me that there is more going on with a child who bullies from elementary school with parents who are in “complete denial”. The denial sounds like a front for behaviors that may happen inside the home. Cracking open the door to admitting fault might open a floodgate for other issues to come pouring out.

    Kids act out when they are in pain and if this behavior manifested in elementary school well it is feasible the source of her pain was inescapable and immediate.

    The saddest part is that her pain and acting out led to the acting out of this young girl. Some hurt others, others hurt themselves. Heartbreaking.

  • fun bobby

    middle schoolers brains are not capable of empathy

    • JGC

      That is unfortunate, but very true. Works in progress.

      • Marie

        I disagree. While I understand children’s brains are still developing children can be taught empathy.

  • Sylviem12

    If people get arrested when they abuse animals in the spirit that they have potential to hurt people, I think that is absolutely clear that people who dare going so far as pushing someone to suicide are definatly dangerous and should be stopped, arrested and prosecuted! Period!

  • Coastghost

    Just surprised not to have heard any Sheryl Sandberg explication of leaning in the wrong direction, or something like that. To a pedestrian mind feminism would seem to have all the incentive it needs to diagnose this particular sad episode.

  • dreaddead1

    It is events like this I wish Facebook still had a college email requirement for signing up.

  • Coastghost

    Yes, dear.

  • HonestDebate1

    Kids are just cruel, it’s a part of growing up. Now we have social media which also lends itself to cruelty. It’s so easy to be nasty when we don’t communicate face to face.

  • Regular_Listener

    After listening to the sherrif’s comments, I have to admit that this does look like an extreme case, and he clearly has taken a serious and thoughtful look at the situation. But that is not always the case, and in general I am opposed to this current trend of using the authorities to intervene in every difficult / hostile / unpleasant interaction that occurs between people. I too was bullied as a child, as were other people I knew, and the thought of suicide never even crossed my mind.

    I think that in some cases people are looking for financial rewards, or looking to avoid the blame that may in part belong within their families, or be the result of mental illness.

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