Not Guilty? Implications for the Teens Charged with Bullying Rebecca Sedwick
Felony stalking 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 Rebecca at school and online, including messages calling for Rebecca to end her life, such as “Drink bleach and die” and “Can you Die Please”? Rebecca did commit suicide and charges were filed. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd made a public spectacle of the proceedings for the apparent purpose of sending a strong message to anyone who would bully: “We will prosecute anyone we can prove has bullied or stalked someone.”
In the wake of the news that the prosecutor declined to pursue formal charges, one of the girls told the Today Show that she didn’t feel guilty and does not feel that she did anything wrong. Of course she did something wrong – and if she doesn’t feel at least some measure of guilt, then that is certainly something the therapists will have to deal with. What is evident is that she has been well-coached by her powerful attorney, Jose Baez (of Casey Anthony fame), not to admit to anything that might be used against her in subsequent legal proceedings. These statements, along with other public posturing by Baez, are simply a counterbalance to Sheriff Judd’s rhetoric last month and should be taken with a grain of salt.
Guilty in the Court of Public Opinion
Despite what the prosecutor has decided, the two girls have already been convicted by the public. And as inappropriate as it is to publicly excoriate adults for their behavior prior to proper adjudication (whatever happened to “innocent until proven guilty?”), it’s even worse when the accused are juveniles. As hurtful as their behavior might have been, that is still no excuse for adults to target them with threats and hatred. Public castigation of those who bullied Rebecca does not bring us any closer to ridding our society of bullying. Quite the opposite, in fact. And to think many people often ask me where kids get the idea that it is OK to treat others so badly… (for Exhibit B, see this recent example of adult role modeling).
The weight of public opinion suggests that the girls were directly responsible for Rebecca’s death and therefore deserve severe punishment. Those who have studied the relationship between bullying and suicide know that there are almost always a variety of factors that lead a child to consider suicide, and very rarely can it be determined with any certainty that a specific experience with bullying directly caused one’s suicide. Most often youth who turn to suicide have experienced long-lasting struggles within their family and/or school, and suffer from a mental disorder. Indeed, bits of information are now emerging that point to a troubled family life for Rebecca. So even though what the two girls did was hurtful and wrong, it likely wasn’t the sole direct cause of Rebecca’s death. But that doesn’t mean that their behavior should not be addressed.
Not the End of the Story
Just because the felony charges have been dropped doesn’t mean that this is the end of the story or that the two girls who bullied Rebecca are off the hook. They certainly have not been “cleared of all wrongdoing” as I saw declared in at least one media account. The prosecutor simply recognized that pursuing a felony case against these minors was not the best course of action. The incident is now being handled within the confidential confines of the juvenile court, which is where it should have been all along. Because of the private nature of the juvenile system, we don’t know for certain what is happening. But from what has been revealed by the sheriff and respective defense attorneys, it appears that the prosecutor has agreed to divert the cases away from the formal system or at least defer prosecution for a period of time, pending the participation in some form of treatment and the ability of the teens to refrain from behaving badly toward others. In short, they are being given another chance.
Sheriff Judd insisted that his department is satisfied with this resolution since the girls involved will “receive the services they need,” which he further stated is “the best outcome for juveniles.” Perhaps it is—for them. But I am left feeling dissatisfied at this because it does not consider the concerns of the victim’s family. Their personal issues notwithstanding, Rebecca is still gone. And while a criminal charge will not bring her back, I can’t help but to have hoped for a more positive conclusion. Instead of high-powered lawyers and defiance and obstinance, it would have been better for all involved had the two girls who tormented Rebecca come forward with a simple, but genuine, expression of remorse. Whether they bullied her to death or not, they treated her in a way that was awful, and that requires amends. Maybe that will come in time. For now, we will wait and see.
Photo credit: family, via WTSP.com