FLORIDA

Florida sheriff right in bullying arrests

 
 
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carlton@tampabay.com

The moment gave me pause: Grady Judd, the Florida sheriff who once said his officers shot at a suspect 110 times and hit him 68 because that’s all the ammo they had, suddenly was making sense on the subject of justice.

This time around, Judd was explaining the recent arrests of two girls after the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick. The Lakeland seventh-grader jumped to her death from an abandoned cement plant silo after reportedly enduring months of Internet and other abuse.

The cyberbullying investigation was ongoing. But then, the sheriff said, a 14-year-old girl considered a major player in the bullying posted an unrepentant [and grammatically mangled] Facebook message: “Yes ik I bullied Rebecca nd she killed herself,” it said, and then got worse with a profane version of I-couldn’t-care-less. And the sheriff said, Enough.

The girl’s parents have said her Facebook account must have been hacked. But if Judd believed he had probable cause to arrest her and a second girl, he was right to say this won’t be tolerated, right to say it’s a crime.

Some people will say that what happened to Rebecca — the suggestions that she kill herself, drink bleach, die — was kids being kids no matter how dark. That some kids push parameters, and some get bullied. That this is life, and the exquisite wretchedness of being that age will finally pass at last.

But bullying that once meant getting tortured on the school bus on the way home is now on the Web for all to see, to pile on. It does not go away. The world has changed. Texts will find you.

In the November issue of GQ, failed politician and serial sexter Anthony Weiner opines that if this were 1955 “and the Internet didn’t exist,” he’d probably be mayor of New York now. (Instead of a perpetual Carlos Danger punch line.)

Debra Lafave, the too-pretty-for-prison teacher who had sex with a 14-year-old student, got a plea deal and probation instead of a trial. The boy’s mother agreed, knowing gavel-to-gavel coverage of a trial on Court TV could haunt her son forever.

Even Lafave seemed to get it when she apologized at a news conference, saying the boy’s “privacy has been violated, his picture has been on the Internet.”

Yes, we should be especially leery of arrests meant to send a message, since justice is supposed to be about what the accused actually did and not some big-picture lesson for the rest of us.

But we’re talking teenagers (and even near-teenagers, since Rebecca and the second girl arrested hadn’t even made it to 13). They live in a bubble, until it bursts. Someone from their tribe facing aggravated stalking charges might be water on a rock, a slow and steady drumbeat about how potentially harmful this is.

And a sentence that includes talking to other kids about consequences would have the distinct ring of something coming from tragedy.

A postscript: Last week, many reporters did not publish the names or mug shots of the two girls arrested because they are so young, a policy that says something about the human ability to grow, to change.

But some did, and so there they are up on the Web for anyone to see, to comment on, to pile on, pretty much forever.

Sue Carlton is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.

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