Rebecca Sedwick suicide: Parents to blame for their bullying children? (+video)
Rebecca Sedwick committed suicide largely because of online bullying, authorities in Florida say. The sheriff wants to bring charges against the bullies' parents.
In the wake of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwickâs suicide last month â in which authorities have alleged that relentless bullying, much of it online, played a significant role â the question of how to prevent cyberbullying attacks is reemerging.
On Monday night in Florida, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd arrested two of the girls, a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old, who he says were the worst offenders. And he has said that, if he can, heâd like to bring charges against some of the parents as wellÂ â though that may not be possible under current law.
The case is raising questions of culpability and responsibility in bullying. To what extent can bullies be held responsible for a suicide in which it certainly seems to have played a role? And who holds responsibility besides the bullies themselves? Their parents? School administrators? Peers who knew it was occurring but didnât stop it?
âThe laws are there, we just need to have a culture that tells us this is whatâs right to do,â says Debbie Johnston, national legislative liaison for Bully Police USA, a group that works to get antibullying laws in place, and a Florida parent whose son committed suicide after relentless bullying eight years ago. âThe problem is not the kids reporting, the problem is usually the adults who do not listen and follow up.â
In Rebeccaâs case, Sheriff Judd has described the bullying as relentless and said Rebecca was âabsolutely terrorized on social media.â She received messages, many of them through messaging applications like ask.fm and Kik, telling her to âdrink bleach and dieâ and âgo kill yourself,â and asking âwait a minute, why are you still alive?â The harassment continued despite Rebecca switching schools and interventions from her parents that included taking away her cellphone until they believed the problem had stopped and getting her counseling. On Sept. 9, Rebecca jumped to her death at an abandoned cement plant.
Judd has said in news conferences that he wasnât planning to make arrests so soon, but that when the 14-year-old girl posted on her Facebook account over the weekend he felt he had to act. Her post said, " 'Yes, I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself but I don't give a ...' and you can add the last word yourself,â he said.
"We decided that we can't leave her out there. Who else is she going to torment, who else is she going to harass?â Judd said.
In an interview with ABC News, the 14-year-oldâs parents said they believed their daughterâs Facebook account had been hacked and that she would never write something like that. A man who said he was the girlâs father told the Associated Press that ânone of itâs true.â
But Judd described the 14-year-old as remorseless and âvery coldâ when she was arrested and criticized her parents for their lack of action.
"I'm aggravated that the parents aren't doing what parents should do,â Judd said.
When asked on NBCâs "Today" show about the likelihood of bringing charges against the girlsâ parents, which he has said he would like to do, Judd admitted that right now, he canât find criminal charges that are applicable.
âBut if we can find a contributing to the âŚ delinquency of a child we certainly would bring that charge, because I can tell you, the parents are in total denial,â Judd said. âThey donât think thereâs a problem here, and that is the problem.âŚThey even let her have her Facebook access after she bullied this child and after they knew it.â
Ms. Johnston, who helped write the antibullying law that Florida now has on its books, which is named after her son, says she believes parents often have huge culpability in bullying by their children.
In her sonâs case, Johnston says, the cyberbullying took place over three years, and despite the bullyâs parents being notified about his actions against her son and other students, they continued to give him access to the home computer and to allow the cyberbullying to go on unchecked.
âHe killed my son as surely as if he crawled through the window, put a gun to his head, and pulled the trigger,â says Johnston. âAnd those parents loaded the gun that allowed him to do itâŚ. They gave him the computer, gave him access, even when they knew for three years that he was hurting not just my child but others as well.â
The law Johnston helped get passed in Florida in 2008 is comprehensive, she says. It requires all districts to implement antibullying policies that require prompt investigation of allegations, create a mandatory reporting procedure, and outline consequences for violation of the policy. Victimsâ families must be notified about whatâs been done to protect their childrenÂ â information Johnston says she couldnât get when her son was being bullied, even though she was also a teacher in the school he attended â and bullies must be referred to counseling.
Still, itâs not clear what steps Rebecca's school took when notified about the bullying, and her mother has said they did not do enough. Johnston says sheâs glad that Judd is prosecuting the two girls in this instance â who have been arrested on third-degree felony charges of aggravated stalking â in part because such cases, she hopes, can help set a precedent for the reach of the law.
âItâs been a long uphill battle to get schools and law enforcement simply to enforce laws already on the books to protect the civil rights of children,â she says.
Still, some cyberbullying experts say that real solutions to the problem may need to begin not with adults or law enforcement, but with peers and a changed culture.
In Rebeccaâs case, as many as 15 other girls were reportedly involved in the bullying, and likely many more who were aware of it, says Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, which works to combat cyberbullying. And yet none of them seem to have stepped in to stop it.
âThe critical issue is that these kinds of hurtful interactions are occurring in environments where adults are not present,â says Ms. Willard in an e-mail. âThe current bullying prevention approaches are all adult-centric â adults make rules, supervise students, and punish those who violate the rules. School officials and parents are not making the rules for websites, they are not present in teen digital environments, and if they punish a student this can lead to uncontrollable digital retaliation. The players who we need to have get involved are the teens. So how do we do this?â
The challenges are numerous, Willard says: Many teens may fear negative consequences or embarrassment from stepping in, or incurring retaliation from the bully or the bullyâs friends. And peer norms, she says, can be powerful. Teens may think others perceive that the person being hurtful is âcoolâ â even if thatâs not accurate.
âWe have to help them understand the high regard that teens hold of those who do step in to help,â Willard says. âWe need to help students learn âŚ how important it is to reach out to be kind publicly or privately to someone who is being hurt. How they can work as a team with several others to safely publicly tell someone to stop. How and why they should tell a friend who is being hurtful to stop. And when the situation has turned to high-risk that needs to be reported to an adult who can help.â
â˘ Material from the Associated Press was used in this report