The unprecedented felony charges against two young girls in Florida accused of harassing a classmate so much that she jumped to her death may mark a turning point in how U.S. law enforcement agencies react to the problem of cyber bullying and stalking.
Grady Judd, the sheriff of Polk County, said in an interview Thursday that his department had not yet completed its investigation when he decided Monday to arrest the minors, ages 12 and 14, after the older girl continued to post abusive messages about the victim, Rebecca Ann Sedwick, even after her death.
“Obviously, this had progressed from bullying to stalking,” Judd said. “It is a repeated term of harassment that causes emotional distress.”
Rebecca, 12, had been targeted for about 10 months by the girls, who told her that she was “ugly” and “should go kill herself” on numerous occasions, according to the arrest affidavit that was released publicly under Florida law.
After Rebecca jumped off a silo at an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland on Sept. 9, police said, the older girl posted further messages on Facebook admitting, “Yes ik [I know] I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but [I don’t care].”
“After her outrageous rants, we had to take her into custody,” Judd said.
In taking a tough stand, Judd has electrified the growing movement that wants to sharpen the battle against malicious juvenile bullying, which has expanded and intensified in the era of social media.
Even before the arrests, Florida had become a national trendsetter in 2004 when it passed a major cyber bullying amendment to its criminal code, a law that spurred other states to follow suit.
States across the nation have a mix of strong and weak laws, unrelated apparently to partisan politics, urbanization or wealth. Texas and Wyoming, along with Florida, are conservative states with strong laws, as are liberal states such as Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maryland. At the same time, California shares relatively weak laws with Mississippi, Minnesota and Nevada.
The issue is pushed by advocacy groups formed largely by the parents of teens who killed themselves after being relentlessly bullied in school. Even among those advocates, there is little cheering about the arrests of the girls in Lakeland, but rather a hope that it will foster change.
“If you do nothing, kids think they can get away with it, but the felony charges seem extreme,” said Brenda High, a founder of Bully Police USA in Pasco, Wash., whose 13-year-old son killed himself in 1998 after being bullied.
Anti-bullying advocates say suicide is the nation’s third-leading cause of teenage deaths and that bullying plays a direct role in the problem.
High’s website ranks the nation’s bullying laws under a 12-point system, giving 13 states A++ rating and 11 states B or lower ratings. Only Montana is given an F, for no bullying laws at all. California’s law lacked a cyber-bullying provision at the time she evaluated the states, she said. In fact, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a cyber-bullying law in 2011 that allowed schools for the first time to suspend students for bullying classmates on social networking sites, including Facebook.
Judd said he hoped the arrests would have an impact, though he added that law enforcement should only come into play when the bullying progresses past routine verbal abuse.
“Frankly, we have the tools for when it goes from bullying to stalking or assaults or batteries,” Judd said.
“Most everyone in this country has been bullied at one time or another,” he added. “Everyone understands the torment and the fear and the angst of being bullied. Everyone can identify — they have a 12-year-old daughter or a 12-year-old son or they have been a 12-year-old. The thought that this child, who was already fragile, would leap to her death, affects us all.”
Although Polk County, situated between Orlando and Tampa, has often found itself in the national news media storms, Monday’s arrests have created an unprecedented amount of attention, Judd said.
“In 41 years I have worked at the Sheriff’s Office, this has been the most interest we have ever had in a story,” Judd said.
The response to the arrests has been overwhelmingly supportive, he said. The only criticism he has heard is the department’s release of the girls’ names, which have been widely reported. Judd said the disclosure was required by Florida law. The Times does not publish the names of arrested minors as a matter of policy unless they are charged as adults.
The investigation into Rebecca’s death is continuing and Judd would not rule out charges against the parents of the girls, though he said he had no probable cause for charges so far.
He noted that the 12-year-old and her family were apologetic after the arrests, in contrast to what he said was the defiance of the 14-year-old and her family. After the 12-year-old’s first appearance in court this week, a state judge released her to her family but ordered the older girl to remain in state custody.
“The judge saw one family contrite and remorseful. The other child was cold, callous and not caring,” Judd said. “He remanded her back to the custody of the juvenile system.”
The parents of the older girl denied she bullied Rebecca and said their daughter’s social media account had been hacked, denials Judd characterized as suspicious.
He added, “These parents went out to lunch and forgot to return.”
Judd noted that the investigation was bogged down by the difficulty in getting all of the Internet communications that were sent by the girls, including on Facebook. At least two foreign websites were used, one in Canada and another in or near Russia.
Debbie Johnston, a Florida teacher and a partner in High’s organization, supports Judd’s tough actions.
“We are finally enforcing the laws on the books,” Johnston said.
When her 15-year-old son killed himself after being bullied, Johnston began advocating for a new cyber-bullying law in Florida, and the state became one of the first to enact legislation. She said that until recent years, schools put the onus of bullying on the victim.
“We have finally begun to stop sweeping the problem under the carpet and started holding the culprits accountable,” she said.