Monday, January 22, 2018
News Roundup

Bullying may not have caused girl's suicide, report shows

WINTER HAVEN — The Florida girl who authorities said jumped to her death because she was bullied also had a spotty relationship with her father and had just broken up with an online boyfriend, according to police documents.

An Associated Press review of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick's 300-page investigative file reveals a more complete picture of the girl's life: She was concerned about her mother and stepfather's fighting, had been involuntarily committed and wrote in her diary that she cut herself to "ease the pain."

In a diary entry dated two weeks before she leaped to her death in September 2013, the girl notes that on one particular day, she had been called "pretty, nice beautiful, funny, awesome." Yet she also had been called "ugly, stupid, slut, fat, not good enough." At the bottom of the page she wrote one word: "suicidal."

However, the file contains scant evidence of cyberbullying, even though officials publicly described cruel text and social media messages as reasons for Rebecca's suicide. Two classmates were charged with stalking Rebecca because of in-school, in-person conflicts, and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd has said the girl also endured a barrage of cruel text and online messages before her death. But the prosecution ultimately fell apart because of a lack of evidence.

The case underscored the difficulty of prosecuting bullying cases, especially cases using online evidence. Rebecca's mother and others called for bullying to be criminalized, but a bill that would have done just that died in the Florida Legislature this year. Lawmakers and law enforcement officials — including Judd — opposed the bill because they said cyberbullying in particular was difficult to prosecute.

"Rebecca was a very fragile child," Judd said in a recent interview. "Rebecca's wagon was already pretty heavily burdened with bricks. And we never said that bullying was the only reason Rebecca committed suicide. But what the bullies did, is that they continued to stack bricks on an already overloaded wagon, 'til finally it broke."

An attorney representing Rebecca's mother did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Judd has said in the past that the girl's mother did everything she could to end the bullying, including home-schooling her and informing school and law enforcement officials.

After Rebecca's death, Judd said as many as 15 classmates had ganged up on the girl and sent her messages saying "You should die" and "Why don't you go kill yourself?" But no such messages appear in the case file, although detectives interviewed some students who said they had seen such messages. Judd said his detectives tried to obtain records from social media companies overseas without success.

There are no chat transcripts between Rebecca and her alleged bullies. Deputies wrote that they saw screen shots of cruel messages and that some of the evidence was deleted, but it's unclear by whom, Judd said.

It's clear from the file that Rebecca had problems with kids at her middle school in December 2012 and January 2013. Interviews with several students said that one girl in particular picked on Rebecca, and Rebecca and another girl were suspended for fighting. Rebecca had told friends she was abused by her mother and child protective authorities were called — but Rebecca later told adults that her claims were a lie.

Rebecca was in counseling, where bullying and Rebecca's home life were the main topics of discussion, the records show.

Rebecca's mother decided to home school her after January 2013, and in late August, Rebecca attended a new school.

A friend of Rebecca's told detectives that she chatted with Rebecca on social media five days before she died. Rebecca didn't say anything about bullying, the report said, but Rebecca stated that she "hated her life and wasn't doing good."

Nancy Willard, the author of Positive Relations (at) School (& Elsewhere), reviewed the investigative file and said she was surprised the two teens were ever charged, given all the variables in Rebecca's life.

"What is strange is that despite solid evidence of challenges associated with Rebecca's home life, for some unknown reason, the detectives chose to spend all of their time in middle school 'drama land' trying to find someone to arrest," Willard said.

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