Social Justice: Cyber Bullying and the Suicide of Rebecca Ann Sedwick

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Sadly, the story of Rebecca Ann Sedwick is reminiscent of other stories of teen cyberbullying;  police are currently investigating what role it may have played in her death.

Last Monday, 12 year old Rebecca jumped to her death from the tower of an abandoned business near her home in Lakeland, Florida.  She’d struggled for months after being bullied excessively by former classmates.  She’d been hospitalized for mental health issues, had been home schooled and transferred to a new school district, but the bullying followed her.

The Huffington Post  reported yesterday that up to 15 girls were involved in the bullying of Rebecca, sending her online messages like “You should die” and “Why don’t you go kill yourself.”

Sadly, the harassment started long before Monday and lasted at least a year.  Last year at Crystal Lake Middle School in Lakeland, Rebecca and a former friend apparently fought physically over a ‘boyfriend issue.’  Rebecca was suspended, but the bullying continued after she returned.

In December of 2012 Rebecca was hospitalized for a suicide attempt when she cut her wrists. Rebecca’s mother said she had to Baker Act her daughter after finding cuts on her arms and legs that were self inflicted.

When she complained about being pushed in the hallway, her mother decided it was time to act and home schooled her daughter for a period.  Rebecca was then enrolled in a new middle school; her mother stated that she appeared to love it there.

She told the Lakeland Ledger, “She put on a perfect, happy face, she never told me. 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.”

Invisible Cyberbullying

rebecca ann sedwickSheriff Grady Judd described the writings they found in Rebecca’s journals as “heartbreaking.”

When police searched Rebecca’s social media and text messages they found an abundance of hateful bullying.

In Sheriff Judd’s view, the school and Rebecca’s mom did all they could do to help Rebecca.

He told the Jacksonville Observer,  “At this point, it seems that middle-school drama led to the girl’s death — not a lack of oversight. Girls can get pretty catty as kids,” Judd said. “The system cannot manage all that cattiness. I truly believe the school system tried but we don’t live in a perfect world.”

Rebecca’s 19 year old sister, Summer Howard, described their relationship as ‘close,’ but even she was not aware that the bullying had continued online.

Yet Rebecca was bombarded with messages through Kik Messenger, Instagram and, an anonymous messaging site;  one can only imagine that Rebecca’s family may never have heard of the very social channels that Rebecca’s attackers were using to tear her world apart.

In the years before social media, Rebecca’s mother’s decision to move her daughter to a new school district would have made it possible for Rebecca to make a fresh start; social media has made it impossible for the victim to escape.

Determined bullies can follow their victim anywhere.

What Happens to the Bullies?

If you haven’t experienced the loss of a loved one by their own hands, I don’t think you can understand the heartbreak Rebecca’s family and friends are feeling now, and will continue to feel for the rest of their lives.

A 12 year old was made to feel so worthless and hopeless that she took her own life; the sadness is indescribable.  What I find almost as impossible to fathom is how the parents of the alleged bullies must feel.

Police report that the families of the accused have been cooperative, turning over cell phones and laptops.

Sheriff Judd told the Lakeland Ledger that there is ample evidence that Rebecca had been “absolutely terrorized on social media.”  He continued, “If we can get any evidence of a criminal offence, the person or persons involved will be punished.”

Florida does have anti-bullying laws that cover cyber bullying and cyber stalking, and it appears that Sheriff Judge is ready to bring charges.  Originally the number of bullies was being reported as as high as 15, but Sheriff Judd has indicated that the actual number of bullies may be much lower.

What Can a Parent Do?

The story of Rebecca Ann Sedwick is even more poignant because her mother tried to put a stop to her daughter’s misery.  There is every indication that not only did Rebecca’s mother act quickly to change the dynamics in her daughter’s life, but she believed she had been successful.

Yet Rebecca kept the continued bullying, the hateful texts and messages, to herself. There were some clues online that things were not right; she told a 12 year old boy that she was going to jump, that she couldn’t take it anymore, but it is likely that he didn’t take her seriously, and that her mother wasn’t even aware of her friendship with the boy.

Just before her suicide, Rebecca changed her name to That Dead Girl on Kik Messenger.  I’m a heavy social media user and I don’t go on Kik Messenger; it is likely that Rebecca’s mom has never heard of it.

Rebecca’s family told the local WTSP TV station that they had tried everything they could to stop the bullying, including shutting down the teen’s Facebook account.

What can parents do to have oversight of their child’s online activities while not invading their privacy?  The question of teen privacy is a very personal one that every family must make on their own, but social media has made the question almost unanswerable.

There are so many platforms and applications, it is nearly impossible for a parent who isn’t tech-savvy  to even know where to start.

Parents can start by visiting The National Academies Net Safe Kids and exploring open monitoring systems that allow them to track their child’s online activities openly.

Nothing will bring back victims of cyber bullying, but perhaps we can raise awareness of how a parent can try to keep up with what is happening to their child online.

0 thoughts on “Social Justice: Cyber Bullying and the Suicide of Rebecca Ann Sedwick

  1. Danny Brown says:

    Every time I hear about, or read of, another teen suicide through bullying (cyber or otherwise), it really gets to me. Children are meant to be innocents; yet to really discover life and all its wonders (and failings). How can people change so drastically in such a short time and feel it’s okay to put someone through the kind of torment Rebecca must have gone through? How can we effectively combat that when even knowing about the issues isn’t leading to solutions?

  2. samfiorella says:

    Reading this made me wanna toss my lunch. Incredibly sad and disturbing.  What ever happened to the promise of social media? It was supposed to connect us to more people, allow us to find new communities, and empower us to say what we might not say in person. The promise was that it would make our lives better but I guess human nature is a virus that is hard to kill.

  3. AmyMccTobin says:

    samfiorella What is really scary to me, Sam, is that this family THOUGHT they’d tackled the problem… but they could not have known. It is so much harder to keep up with your kids because of social media.    The one bright spot is that law enforcement took this very seriously.  I think we need to do a huge push to educate parents, teachers and kids about cyber bullying and where they can go for help.  There HAVE to be success stories out there of a kid finding a way to win.

  4. hessiej says:

    Amy, the sad thing is that we can’t turn off any of these hateful channels. I hear about kids who, despite the taunts and attacks can’t simply walk away. They try to defend themselves to no avail. I am so more vigilant these days, especially when it comes to my daughter who is addicted to her Tumblr and Twitter. I demand access to her user and password information and I read everything that comes in to her email.  She asked me if I trusted her. I said, “Of course I trust you; it’s everyone else out there that I don’t trust”.

  5. InfoSara says:

    “teen privacy is a very personal one”, this is what I told my kids —  “there’s no privacy in our family when it comes to your safety. both online and offline.”  I have login IDs and passwords to their every single account, like Hessie, not only I read everything from emails to iMessages to texts; they also need to tell me if they are going on websites that we haven’t visited together before, they need to let me know what they search YouTube for, they recently have access to Instagram as private account, I decide who can follow them and I approve the selfies they post, if any.  You may feel pity about my kids but this is what we have decided under the roof.  I know how mean (but can’t imagine) teen girls can be, I specifically tell my girls, “No need to chase the boys, real good boy will come and treat you respectfully.”

  6. hessiej says:

    InfoSara I like your style Sara. These days we can’t be too careful. I’m not sure about that last statement. It’s the 21st century, girls chase as much as t he boys these days. But there are more discreet ways of doing it than the overt stuff we see today.

  7. AmyMccTobin says:

    InfoSara When my son was a teenager I actually used tracking software – he was in very dangerous territory and I needed to know. I discovered that not only was it worse than I thought, some of his friends were dealing drugs etc.   Kids that no one would have suspected.    Personally, it’s all about : keep them safe at all costs, but that’s my own personal choice and I don’t pretend to know everything. At least not on this topic.

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