Community Contributor
10:41 am
Tue October 15, 2013

The Rise Of Cyberbullying: The Case Of Rebecca Sedwick

The final school photo of Rebecca Sedwick.
The final school photo of Rebecca Sedwick.

Update 2:30 p.m. Oct. 15: Two Florida girls who were primarily responsible for bullying a 12-year-old girl who killed herself were arrested after one of them acknowledged the harassment online, a sheriff said Tuesday.

Police in central Florida have been investigating the death of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, who climbed a tower at an abandoned concrete plant Sept. 9 and hurled herself to her death. Authorities said as many as 15 girls may have bullied Rebecca and the investigation was continuing.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said the arrests of the girls, ages 14 and 12, were hastened when the older girl posted Saturday on Facebook, saying she bullied Rebecca but she didn't care.

Pallbearers wearing anti-bullying T-shirts carry the casket of Rebecca Sedwick,12, to a waiting hearse as they exit the Whidden-McLean Funeral Home Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, in Bartow, Fla. Polk County Sheriff's Office investigators say they believe Sedwick leaped to her death from a structure at an abandoned cement plant last week following months of bullying.
Pallbearers wearing anti-bullying T-shirts carry the casket of Rebecca Sedwick,12, to a waiting hearse as they exit the Whidden-McLean Funeral Home Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, in Bartow, Fla. Polk County Sheriff's Office investigators say they believe Sedwick leaped to her death from a structure at an abandoned cement plant last week following months of bullying.
Credit Brian Blanco

"We decided that we can't leave her out there. Who else is she going to torment, who else is she going to harass?" Judd said.

The 14-year-old girl was accused of threatening to beat up Rebecca while they were sixth-graders at Crystal Lake Middle School, telling her "to drink bleach and die" and saying she should kill herself, the sheriff said. The older girl convinced the younger girl to bully Rebecca, and they both repeatedly intimidated her, called her names and once the younger girl even beat Rebecca up, police said.

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Rebecca Sedwick never boarded her school bus last week. Instead, she walked to an abandoned cement plant, climbed a platform and jumped to her death.  She was 12 years old.

The last time her mother saw her alive, she was texting.  And it is those text messages, and Rebecca’s cyber-life, that police are sifting through as they try to piece together what led this pretty little girl to commit suicide.

Before her death, she changed her name on one of her mobile phone applications to “That Dead Girl,”and messaged a 12-year-old friend in North Carolina saying, "I'm jumping, I can't take it anymore."

For more than a year, the girl was bullied online. The Lakeland Ledger reports that detectives found multiple social media applications where Sedwick was constantly bullied with messages, including "Go kill yourself," and "Why are you still alive?"

She was “absolutely terrorized on social media,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd at a news conference last week.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case.  Over the last two years, there have been at least half a dozen suicides prompted, at least in part, by cyberbullying. This has led Governor Rick Scott and state legislators across the country to enact new laws against online bullying.

And as of July 1st, Florida's new law gives schools jurisdiction in cases of cyberbullying that occur outside of school.  However, each day it becomes abundantly clear that schools cannot handle this alone.

There is an increasing number of kids reporting cyberbullying.
There is an increasing number of kids reporting cyberbullying.
Credit Cyberbullying Research Center

Rebecca was troubled. When the bullying began last December, she began cutting herself. When her mother noticed the slashes to her wrists, she had Rebecca hospitalized for three days with counseling. 

When she returned to school, Rebecca complained that she had been pushed in the hallway and that another girl wanted to fight her. Rebecca's mother pulled her out of school and began home-schooling her. She deleted her daughter’s Facebook account, took away her mobile phone and tried to keep track of her daughter’s social media use.

When Rebecca entered a new school this fall, she seemed happy. Her mother told the New York Times that she was preparing to audition for chorus and thinking of cheerleading again.  And, with the return of the mobile phone, she opened accounts on applications that her mother – and most parents – are unaware of, such as Kik Messenger, ask.fm and Voxer.

The bullying started up again.

Despite her mother’s vigilance, Rebecca was still suffering. A police search of the girl’s mobile phone and computer uncovered internet searches like, “What is overweight for a 13 year-old girl?” and “How many Advil do you have to take to die?”

Detectives also found photos of Sedwick with razor blades lying on her arms and one of her screensavers was a photo of her head resting on a railroad track. 

It is impossible to determine whether Rebecca’s depression and her subsequent suicide were solely due to bullying; however, there is growing concern – and mounting evidence – that kids are just too involved online.  Perhaps the distance and anonymity of online interactions inspires cruelty. 

Social media is a powerful tool, one with the power to bring people together like never before. But it is also incredibly dangerous and maybe -- especially in the hands of kids who have not yet developed empathy – destructive.

As a community, we have to place greater value and importance on personal interactions, rather than virtual ones.  Maybe it is okay to tell a child that they are too young for a mobile phone and too young for social media. Maybe then we’d talk, instead of text, and maybe someone would have heard Rebecca crying out for help.  Maybe someone would have told an adult about the bullying.  Maybe the bullies’ parents would have put a stop to the torment. 

Maybe then, Rebecca’s mother would be tucking her in to bed tonight.