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
NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook – October 18, 2013
Dr. Patchin joins Tom Ashbrook for a discussion of the Rebecca Sedwick suicide and resulting felony charges leveled against two of those who allegedly bullied her. Also featured in the program are Jerriann Sullivan (Orlando Sentinel), Sheriff Grady Judd (Polk County, FL sheriff), and Sue Shellenbarger (The Wall Street Journal).
October 18, 2013
Criminal Charges Filed Against Two Involved in Rebecca Sedwick Suicide
Two 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.
Does Bullying “Cause” Suicide?
The title of Deborah Temkin’s recent Huffington Post article is a simple request: “Stop saying bullying causes suicide.” Her plea is understandable and justified. Sameer and I also cringe when we read the ubiquitous headlines espousing the conventional wisdom proclaiming that “bullying causes suicide.” But what does the research actually say about the nature of this relationship?
Temkin rightly points to a handful of studies that have shown that there is some truth to the assertion that bullying plays a role in some suicides. But it is also true that most teens involved in bullying do not die by suicide. Most people who have spent some time exploring the connection understand that, like any association in the social sciences, it is often much more complicated than simply X causes Y. There are a number of known factors related to suicide that, combined with other situational or enduring life stressors (such as bullying), can predict risk. But even so, most people who experience these do not commit suicide.
I think it is just as important to remember that, as inappropriate as it is to assert that “bullying causes suicide,” it is perhaps equally incorrect to say that “bullying does not cause suicide.” The frank truth is that we really don’t know. I’m not aware of any research that has tested the “bullying causes suicide” hypothesis that has returned null findings. Most research that I am aware of, including the few samples where we include questions about suicidal ideology and attempts, shows a significant, though admittedly modest relationship in the expected direction (namely, that experience with bullying is a factor in suicide). Not the opposite. Of course there are other variables, like the risk factors noted above, that play an important role.
One realization I have come to over the last several months and years is that it is not helpful to tell a grieving family that bullying was not the cause of their child’s death, when in their hearts they know it to be. I am not going to stand in front of them and tell them that they are wrong. Here’s what we do know: most young people who are bullied do not resort to suicide. Some do. Whether it’s causal or correlational or part of a whole constellation of co-occurring challenges in the lives of certain youths, how does that really change what we all are trying to do? We seek to inform the problem of teen suicide with data, and the empirical and anecdotal data that do exist (however limited) lends more credibility to a relationship than not. Please don’t misread this as defending the media for often misrepresenting the nature of the problem, but we shouldn’t overplay our hand either.
So I would offer an addendum to Temkin’s HuffPost appeal. Yes, people should “Stop saying bullying causes suicide.” But we also shouldn’t say that it doesn’t. The honest answer is that we really don’t know a whole lot about why some teens who are bullied consider suicide whereas the vast majority do not. As in many cases we write about on this blog, more research is necessary.
By the way, if you or a friend is contemplating suicide, please contact the Suicide Prevention Hotline at: 1-800-273-TALK.
Hannah Smith: Even More Tragic Than Originally Thought
Many are now familiar with the tragic case of Hannah Smith, the 14-year-old from Leicestershire, England, who hanged herself on August 2nd after reportedly being harassed online for months. Cruel messages received principally on the social media site Ask.fm are being cited by her father and others as a primary cause of the suicide, though rarely is it that simple. Even though our research has shown that experience with bullying (whether online or off, and whether as a target or perpetrator) is associated with an elevated risk of depression and suicidal thoughts, this is far from proving that bullying causes suicide. Peer harassment is just one of many factors that contribute to increased risk of suicide. As we concluded in our paper “…it is unlikely that experience with cyberbullying by itself leads to youth suicide. Rather, it tends to exacerbate instability and hopelessness in the minds of adolescents already struggling with stressful life circumstances.” After her death, Hannah’s father found a note that read: “As I sit here day by day I wonder if it’s going to get better. I want to die, I want to be free. I can’t live like this any more. I’m not happy.” Hopeless indeed.
The tragedy has taken an even darker turn as there is now emerging evidence that the hurtful messages sent to Hannah may have actually been sent by Hannah herself. Upon investigating the suicide, Ask.fm officials noted that 98% of the messages sent to Hannah came from the same IP address as the computer she was using.
While the investigation is ongoing and there is so much that we still don’t know about what led to Hannah’s death, it is worth noting that “self-cyberbullying” is not a new phenomenon. danah boyd, social media guru (and new mom!), wrote about “digital self-harm” back in 2010, focusing on behaviors observed on the now defunct formspring.me, a social media site that operated a lot like Ask.fm (with the public answering of questions sometimes posed by anonymous people). “There are teens out there who are self-harassing by ‘anonymously’ writing mean questions to themselves and then publicly answering them,” danah wrote. And last year, Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center researcher and Psychology professor Elizabeth Englander found that up to 10% of college freshmen admitted that they had “falsely posted a cruel remark against themselves, or cyberbullied themselves, during high school.”
Those who harm themselves physically (usually by cutting, carving, or burning) are hurting and desperately searching for relief from some perceived insurmountable shortcoming. It is often a coping mechanism to distract from pain in other areas of their lives. They feel as though they have no other options and resort to a last ditch effort to bring some sense of normalcy or routine to their life. If left to fester, self-harm can eventually result in the ultimate harm to oneself—suicide—though usually the two behaviors are distinct.
And even though some might assume that those who choose digital forms of self-harm are at a reduced risk of physical self-harm or suicide (suggesting perhaps that these youth don’t actually really want to hurt themselves), Hannah’s case certainly casts doubt on that hypothesis. Desperation and despair can lead people to do things that may seem completely irrational to the rest of us. But to them, it appears to be their only option.
To be sure, much more work needs to be done to explore this hidden side of cyberbullying. We don’t know how much self-cyberbullying is really going on and whether the causes are comparable to other forms of self-harm. As danah aptly points out, however, irrespective of who the perpetrator is, targets of cyberbullying need help. “Teens who are the victims of bullying – whether by a stranger, a peer, or themselves – are often in need of support, love, validation, and, most of all, healthy attention.” If you would like help with thoughts of suicide, please contact the Suicide Prevention Hotline at: 1-800-273-TALK. In the U.K. you can call The Samaritans at 08457 90 90 90.