Criminal Charges Filed Against Two Involved in Rebecca Sedwick Suicide

Posted by Justin W. Patchin on October 16, 2013

rebecca_ann_sedwickTwo girls (a 14 year-old and a 12 year-old) have now been arrested and charged with felony aggravated stalking for their involvement in the bullying of 12 year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick. Rebecca jumped to her death on September 9th after enduring months of bullying, online and off, from as many as 15 classmates at Crystal Lake Middle School. Among the messages were repeated calls for Rebecca to end her life, including “Drink bleach and die” and “Can you Die Please?” She changed her Kik Messenger profile name to “That Dead Girl” and then did just as they had asked, and committed suicide.

Two of the tormenters are now facing criminal charges. But at least one of the them doesn’t seem to be too concerned about that. According to an AP report, the older of the two who were charged allegedly boasted about her behavior toward Rebecca, even after the suicide: “‘Yes, I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself but I don’t give a …’ and you can add the last word yourself,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd noted, referring to a Facebook post. This kind of response from a teen accused of bullying is actually very rare. Most of the time, when teens are confronted with their bullying behaviors, they are dismissive, but generally apologetic. Not brazen. The question is, does her behavior (or maybe just her attitude) warrant a criminal response?

Additional Criminalization of Cyberbullying Generally Still Not the Answer

I’ve long advocated against the further criminalization of cyberbullying as it occurs among adolescents. As a criminologist, I can appreciate the purpose and role of the criminal justice system to ensure public safety by intervening in targeted and meaningful ways with those who violate the norms of society. Lately, however, our “interventions” have largely amounted to mass incarceration with little offered in terms of rehabilitative services. While the juvenile justice system has traditionally been more focused on providing treatment to troubled youth rather than simply locking them up, the scarcity of resources certainly has constrained the ability of juvenile and family courts across the country to provide the type of comprehensive programming needed to solve the underlying problems.

As a result, the justice system (for minors and adults alike) should be reserved for the most serious of cases involving the most obstinate of offenders for which alternative remedies have failed. It is unknown whether any of the girls involved in bullying Rebecca had been disciplined at home, at school, or elsewhere. Given the seriousness of the actions committed over an extended period of time, coupled with the ultimate outcome, perhaps this is precisely the kind of case where a criminal charge is warranted.

But I am still reluctant to resign myself to that position, especially given the ages of the girls involved. What they did was wrong and requires intervention and appropriate discipline. I’m not sure, however, that prosecuting them criminally brings us any closer to solving this problem among teens. It is unlikely to deter them from future misbehavior (any more than other school and family responses), and is even less likely to deter others from similar behaviors. In general, an adolescent’s behavior is more influenced by caring adults and peers than the threat of legal sanction. So it is the primary responsibility of parents and educators to work together to prevent incidents from escalating to this point, and to work together to come up with an appropriate response strategy when it does.

What About the Parents and the School?

Many have rightly asked “Where were the parents in all of this?” It appears that Rebecca’s parents were trying to do everything in their power to resolve the situation. She contacted the school but when the behaviors continued she felt it necessary to remove her daughter from the environment and home-school her. Even with that, the bullying continued. Not much is known about how the parents of those accused of doing the bullying responded. Some have suggested that the parents be charged for their inability to control the behaviors of their children. Holding parents accountable for the behavior of their children is challenging, but may be applicable when parents know about delinquent behavior but fail to make a reasonable effort to stop it. It is very likely that the parents in this case will claim that they had no idea about the nature and extent of their child’s online behaviors. They should have.

It’s also unclear what actions the school took to remedy this situation. Schools have a responsibility to ensure a safe learning environment for all students in their buildings and from what is being reported, Rebecca was bullied at school for months. Clearly she did not feel safe since her parents felt it was necessary to remove her from the school. Not only do schools have an obligation to respond to bullying, but they must do so in a way that stops the bullying. For example, last year a jury ordered Pine Plains Central School District pay a former student $1 million dollars when he was unable to attend his regular high school because of repeated harassment. In this case the school did respond by suspending those who were doing the bullying when it was reported to them, but the court said that they should have taken more steps to ensure the bullying ceased.

In short, the vast majority of bullying and cyberbullying incidents can and should be handled by parents working with schools to resolve the situation in a way that ends the bullying. It seems that there were many missed opportunities in this particular case where those adults could have gotten involved to stop the bullying more effectively, but didn’t. The bottom line is that the bullying needs to stop. If it doesn’t, then additional steps need to be taken until it does. A criminal charge should fall at the far end of any comprehensive continuum of punishment and reserved for those rare instances where all other efforts fail.

24 Responses to “Criminal Charges Filed Against Two Involved in Rebecca Sedwick Suicide”

  1. Redael says:

    A felony is earned they destroyed one life let theirs be tainted by their actions. More so when one stated “yes I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself, but I don’t give a (expletive)”

    • says:

      No, they did not destroy a life. The young girl committed suicide. In three years, the young girl would have probably outgrown her care and concern for whatever the other girls said. Each of us is responsible for own behavior. Your logic is the same one people who abuse their children use. “The kid made me mad, and I snapped.” No crime was committed.

      • kayleigh says:

        It doesn’t matter chberbullying is still bullying. It was really shelfish for the two girls to message Rebeca and to continue to say what they said. A family friend killed himself because of bullying. And for the kids that just stood there and watched . Its sad when an young adult kills there self cause of bullying.

  2. says:

    It is a sad thing that a child would be so insecure and have such low self esteem that she would commit suicide over what two ill mannered, aggressive girls say about her. However, this is still America where we are guaranteed freedom of speech. Furthermore, if what was being said about this young girl hurt her feelings, she need not have gone to the sites to read the comments.
    Self esteem and self confidence are things that develop early in childhood and are rooted in how we are regarded and how we are treated by our caregivers, most usually our parents. Since it is impossible for us to know what went on in this child’s home during her early years anymore than we can know what went on in the homes of her persecutors, we cannot determine where the fault lies. America was founded by brave, adventurous people who left what they knew in their homelands and struck out to make new lives. Nowadays, too many people look to blame others for their failures and problems rather than standing up and taking responsibility for their action.
    As for the sheriff trying to prosecute the parents, that is absolute stupidity. Such action violates the protection of the 1st amendment’s intent and purpose. Cyber bullying is simply another term coined by people looking for someone else to protect them from nothing more than imagined harm, and wanting to give away more of their constitutional rights to an ever-more intrusive and abusive government. I strongly suspect that in the jail of the Polk County Florida sheriff, a thorough investigation would show that suspects’ rights are regularly violated and that there are often fights among the inmates, unnecessary physical force used against the inmates, abusive behavior toward the inmates by staff, and the necessity of some inmates to be held in protective custody due to the inability of the sheriff to control the bullying of inmate by inmate in the jail that he supposedly controls. Let him clean up his own house and comply with the laws that are in effect. Then maybe he won’t have time to arrest people based on nothing more than his own one-eye-blind sense of justice.
    We already have laws regarding assault, battery, slander, and libel, These are all we need in this area.
    Our country has, throughout its history, thrived on bullying, from our slaughter, stealing, and demeaning of the Native America peoples, to the importation of slaves, to the abuse of the Irish, the Italian, and the Jewish people who immigrated to America. And it continues to thrive here in the police departments across the country, the federal law enforcement agencies, the CIA and our military. What hypocrisy!

  3. […] her daughter from the environment and home-school her. Even with that, the bullying continued,” says Justin W. Patchin, Professor of Criminology and Co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at the University of […]

  4. meme says:

    i feel bad for the girl she was only like what 12?

  5. aliyah says:

    may she rest in peace and whoever did this should be ashamed

  6. aliyah says:

    i feel bad for her to so sad to young how ever didi may suffer

  7. meme says:

    im gonna cry

  8. Guest says:

    may she rest in peace

  9. hooly says:

    I feel so disappointed that that killed her I fell bad

  10. bubble910 says:

    hi everyone

  11. hooly says:

    I feel so bad she was just 13 years and she died and there was no need for it and she need to live she should have been able to see hight school and yah this is jaden and I feel bad

  12. hooly says:

    I mean jayden

  13. bubble910 says:

    this makes me so sad stupid people

  14. bubble910 says:

    jen is mean 😛

  15. secret says:

    seriously guys ? we just read a story about a girl who comited suicide because of cyberbullying and now your comenting about people who are “mean” i know jen and she ISNT mean like guys just STOP

  16. Shannon Harper says:

    Look how our youth is now a days. May Rebecca rest in peace. This cyber bullying is honestly getting out of hand and I feel like sometimes we are not making progress to help this situation because we keep seeing these horrible situations over and over again. I am glad that schools are finally to punish these kids but it looks like Rebecca’s school did not do enough of anything because look at the outcome that was reached. These two girls deserve to be charged with what they did I believe a lot of it was the parents fault too because I believed they knew what was going on and just did not care.

  17. […] charges have now been dropped for the two girls (one 14-years-old, the other now 13-years-old) who last month were implicated in the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick. They were alleged to have bullied […]

  18. viperjack says:

    kids. are tought to be bullies. they learn from thier parents. take your children to self defence classes it will build thier confidence as well teach them to protect thier selfs. and for someone to say the girl was at fought for killing herself is a moron. children have differant emotional levels to where you say one thing to one child and they think nothing of it while the other child takes it hard. and its these emotions thar control thier reactions. being put down from other people is a tragic event for very emotional people. its basicly brain washing oh your ulgy oh you should kill yourself. after hearing it so much they believe thats what they haft to do. this child would still be alive rite now if she would of been left alone and treated like a person that mattered . nuff said

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