Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Public safety

After Lakeland girl's death, family regrets missing signs of cyberbullying

LAKELAND — Twelve-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick briefly stayed with her older sister in St. Petersburg last June. The two got matching bracelets and manicures.

Becca got pink. And she opened up to her big sister, Amy Sedwick, 25.

Becca showed her sister the self-inflected cuts on her abdomen. She said girls from school were saying she should die.

Go kill yourself, her sixth-grade classmates wrote on the Internet. Why haven't you already died?

Amy Sedwick told Becca to ignore them, and Becca promised she wasn't cutting herself anymore. She enrolled at a different Lakeland school last month.

On Tuesday, Becca, a former cheerleader with silky brown hair, who loved the boy band One Direction and planned to try out for the school choir, killed herself.

Her family and Polk County deputies blame months of cyberbullying.

Like her mother, who is overwhelmed with questions and regret, Amy Sedwick is replaying those weeks in her mind, wondering what she could have done better. Becca's mother, Tricia Norman, said Friday that she blames herself for not scouring her daughter's phone and computer, where much of the taunting happened without Norman's knowledge.

Norman knew girls were pulling Becca's hair and saying mean things about her at Crystal Lake Middle School last spring. She thinks it started over a boy. Becca's mother pulled her out of Crystal Lake and homeschooled her through the end of the year. Becca saw a counselor, and her family thought she had improved.

She was making new friends at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy. She smiled easily.

When she didn't show up at school on Tuesday, her mother reported her missing.

News of Becca's death spread quickly after her body was found Tuesday evening at an abandoned cement plant near her Lakeland home. Facebook support groups popped up, and locals organized fundraisers for funeral expenses.

The Polk County Sheriff's Office is investigating and says there could be criminal charges if it finds evidence of online stalking.

On Friday afternoon, a steady stream of strangers stopped by a growing memorial at the plant on N Eastside Drive. Trecia Berry, 58, set down a candle, rosary and plaque with the Lord's Prayer. Then she walked back to her truck, sat and cried.

Like Becca's family, Berry is heartened by the Lakeland community's outpouring of support for the girl.

"But where were they when she needed help?" she asked.

After Becca's death, Norman saw things she wishes she would have known about earlier.

A photo on Becca's Instagram account said "If I went missing, would anybody care?"

And Becca had written in a notebook: "Everyday more and more kids kill themselves because of bullying. How many lives have to be lost until people realize words do matter?"

To say this week has been a nightmare for Norman would be to put words to something unexplainable. She doesn't know what to do or what to say. She has been talking to reporters, though, hoping to warn other parents.

She wants to start some sort of national anti-cyberbullying campaign. She might reply to the congressman who emailed her about writing "Becca's law." A CNN reporter visited her modest Lakeland home on Friday.

One in five children are victims of cyberbullying, according to Florida Atlantic University criminology professor Sameer Hinduja, who has written books on the issue. About 15 percent of children have bullied online.

Cyberbullying may be a new buzzword, but all it means is that the age-old issue of relentless torment has found a new venue. It is not an epidemic, but it is something parents should be vigilant about, Hinduja said.

As bullying took to the Internet, it became unique in a couple ways. Often, a person will say worse things online — things their conscience would not allow them to say face-to-face. Also, cyberbullying can be difficult to escape. With the social media, text messages and smartphone apps, schoolhouse issues can follow children home.

Amy Sedwick wonders if her sister was going online and reading the hateful messages at night, when the rest of the family was asleep.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said his office has identified at least 15 girls who were involved in Becca's social media circle. The parents of the girls have cooperated with detectives and several cellphones and laptops have been confiscated, Judd said.

Norman believes some of those girls are just witnesses. But as for those who are responsible, Norman hopes they go to jail.

"They knew what they were doing," she said. "And they wouldn't stop. They just stalked her wherever she went."

Norman wants parents to do what she didn't — to pay close attention to what their children are doing online and on their phones.

"Because Becca seemed perfectly happy," she said. "I wish I looked harder. I just thought everything was okay."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

     
     
Comments

Male bicyclist struck, killed by vehicle in Pinellas Park

PINELLAS PARK — A male bicyclist was struck and killed by a vehicle on U.S. 19 on Monday night, according to Pinellas Park police.The incident took place at about 8:30 p.m. along the 8000 block of U.S. 19 N, near the Walmart Supercenter.The driver wa...
Updated: 8 hours ago

Baby, 11 months, dies in reported drowning at Brandon apartments’ pool

BRANDON — An 11-month-old girl’s parents said their daughter drowned in an apartment complex pond Monday, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.The infant and her parents were not publicly identified by the Sheriff’s Office. The paren...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Police release photos of men sought for questioning in Florida mall blast

Police release photos of men sought for questioning in Florida mall blast

LAKE WALES — Police say two devices ignited inside a mall in central Florida on Sunday do not appear to be an act of terrorism.According to the FBI, bomb technicians examining the contents of a backpack found at Eagle Ridge Mall in Lake Wales on Sund...
Published: 01/22/18
Something new for Gasparilla — your own private boat captain

Something new for Gasparilla — your own private boat captain

TAMPA — The Gasparilla Parade of Pirates may be this city’s most festive event, but law enforcement maintains its zero-tolerance policy for drinking and driving, whether on land or on water.So if you plan on consuming alcohol at the parade, get home ...
Published: 01/22/18
Clearwater police arrest man in taxi jacking near Crest Lake Park

Clearwater police arrest man in taxi jacking near Crest Lake Park

CLEARWATER — Police officers arrested a 38-year-old man they say robbed a taxi driver at knifepoint Monday morning near Crest Lake Park.According to Clearwater police, Samuel Eric Brown, of Clearwater, stole cash from a driver for United Cab, took th...
Published: 01/22/18
Police: Driver rear-ends school bus in Clearwater

Police: Driver rear-ends school bus in Clearwater

CLEARWATER — A driver rear-ended Monday a school bus on the way to Safety Harbor Middle. None of the 38 students on board were hurt in the crash in the eastbound lanes of NE Coachman Road just west of U.S. 19, according to Clearwater police. Most boa...
Published: 01/22/18
Deputies seek hit-and-run driver who seriously injured bicyclist in Plant City

Deputies seek hit-and-run driver who seriously injured bicyclist in Plant City

Hillsborough County deputies are searching for the driver who seriously injured a bicyclist in a hit-and-run crash in Dover on Monday morning.Deputies say the suspect was driving a Toyota Camry that is now missing part of its right front air dam afte...
Published: 01/22/18

Woman, 35, struck and killed while walking across SR 60 in Valrico

VALRICO — A 35-year-old Thonotosassa woman was struck and killed by a car while walking across State Road 60 west of Mount Carmel Road on Sunday night, the Florida Highway Patrol said.Brandi Eckelstafer was walking south across SR 60 just after 8 p....
Published: 01/22/18

Hillsborough diver who died in Eagle’s Nest Cave was adventurous but experienced

Davin Brannon was a pilot, a spearfisherman, an avid cave and open-water diver and an experienced all-around adventurer, said those close to him ."I guess you could say he died doing what he loved," his cousin Pam Kirven said. "But I also know he’d n...
Published: 01/21/18

Deputies: 18-year-old speeding on U.S. 19 faces charges of DUI, fleeing scene

PALM HARBOR — A speeding driver on U.S. 19 refused to stop for deputies and took off, later rear-ending a car and injuring three people early Sunday morning, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.A little after 1:30 a.m., Kingzig Montanez...
Published: 01/21/18