September 14, 2013

Suicide of girl, 12, follows online bullying

Florida authorities seize computers and cellphones as they decide whether to bring charges.

By TAMARA LUSH The Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla.- For nearly a year, as many as 15 girls ganged up on 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick and picked on her, authorities say, bombarding her with online messages such as "You should die" and "Why don't you go kill yourself."

click image to enlarge

Summer Howard and Alecia Wilkins make a poster Tuesday for Howard’s sister Rebecca Sedwick, 12, who jumped to her death Monday from a concrete plant’s tower in Lakeland, Fla.

The Associated Press

At some point, Rebecca decided she couldn't take it anymore.

She changed one of her online screen names to "That Dead Girl." She messaged a boy: "I'm jumping." And then, on Monday, she went to an abandoned concrete plant in Lakeland where she liked to hang out, climbed a tower and hurled herself to her death.

Authorities have seized computers and cellphones from some of the girls as they decide whether to bring charges.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Rebecca had been "absolutely terrorized.".

"We can see from what we've been investigating so far that Rebecca wasn't attacking back," Judd said. "She appeared to be beat down. She appeared to have a defeatist attitude. And quite frankly, the entire investigating is exceptionally disturbing."

The bullying started over a boy last year at Crystal Lake Middle School, according to Judd. But he gave no details. Police said at one point Rebecca had been suspended for fighting with a girl who used to be her friend.

The case has illustrated, once more, the ways in which the Internet is often used by youngsters to torment others.

"There is a lot of digital drama. Middle-school kids are horrible to each other, especially girls," said Perry Aftab, a New Jersey-based lawyer and expert on cyberbullying.

Last December, Rebecca was hospitalized for three days after cutting her wrists because of what she said was bullying, according to the sheriff. Later, after Rebecca complained that she had been pushed in the hallway and that another girl wanted to fight her, Rebecca's mother began home-schooling her, Judd said.

This fall, Rebecca started at a new school, Lawton Chiles Middle Academy, and loved it, Judd said. But the bullying continued online.

"She put on a perfect, happy face. She never told me," Rebecca's mother, Tricia Norman, told the Lakeland Ledger. "I never had a clue. I mean, she told me last year when she was being bullied, but not this year, and I have no idea why."

After Rebecca's suicide, police looked at her computer and found search queries such as "What is overweight for a 13-year-old girl," "how to get blades out of razors," and "how many over-the-counter drugs do you take to die." One of her screensavers also showed Rebecca with her head resting on a railroad track.

Detectives said the girls' parents have been cooperative.

Florida has a bullying law, but it calls for schools, not police, to punish bullies. Legal experts said it is difficult to bring charges against someone accused of driving a person to suicide.

"We've had so many suicides that are related to digital harassment. But we also have free-speech laws in this country," Aftab said.

In 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself in California after she was dumped online by a fictitious teenage boy created in part by an adult neighbor, Lori Drew, authorities said. A jury found Drew guilty of three federal misdemeanors, but a judge threw out the verdicts and acquitted her.

Florida's law, the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act, was named after a teen who killed himself after being harassed by classmates. The law was amended July 1 to cover cyberbullying.

David Tirella, a Florida attorney who lobbied for the law and has handled dozens of cyberbullying cases, said law enforcement can also seek more traditional charges.

"There's battery, there's stalking," he said.

 

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