There is perhaps no more heartbreaking story in the news these days than the suicide of a bullied 12-year-old Florida girl, a death all the more distressing because it was a preventable loss of young life.
The sadness extends beyond the obvious. Two former schoolmates of Rebecca Sedwick, 12 and 14 years old, have been arrested on felony charges of aggravated stalking. They’re accused of threatening to beat up Rebecca and of sending her messages that would send chills up the sturdiest spine.
How do girls so young become so cruel? So empty of empathy and conscience? These are middle school students, after all. Not even old enough to drive.
They weren’t the only ones harassing Rebecca, only the worst offenders. According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, as many as 15 might have participated in the physical and cyberbullying — 15 adolescents who should bear the guilt of a death for their lifetimes.
Sheriff Grady Judd told the media he decided to arrest the two girls after the 14-year-old posted this doozy: “Yes, I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself but I don’t give a [expletive].”
“We decided we can’t leave her out there,” a visibly angry sheriff told the press. “Who else is she going to torment? Who else is she going to harass?”
He was upset that the girls were still using social media, apparently with no supervision. Judd said his office was looking into whether charges could be brought against the parents.
Finding an applicable law may be a long shot. No one has figured out if this sort of parental ignorance and indifference can be prosecuted, and Rebecca’s suicide, along with a spate of similar ones, has experts debating whether criminalizing bullying behavior will truly deter other kids.
The father of the 14-year-old has claimed his daughter did not write the latest post and that her Facebook account was hacked. That’s easy enough to check. But either way, it doesn’t excuse the year-long harassment campaign.
In a surprising twist, Vivian Vosburg, the stepmother of this same 14-year-old, was arrested on child abuse and neglect charges after a video was posted on Facebook showing her beating two boys. Vosburg, 30, admitted to the beating, saying it “got out of hand” because she was having a “bad day.”
Those charges are not related to the ones against her stepdaughter, but an old adage comes to mind: The apple doesn’t fall from the tree. Surely it is no coincidence that a teen whose stepmother admits to beating children goes on to torment a peer.
The girls’ arrests coincide with National Bullying Prevention Month. This year, the effort includes a “Bullying Ends with Me” campaign. The idea? Quick and decisive involvement by everyone can stop bullying.
That should mean parents supervising their children’s use of social networks. School authorities responding to allegations immediately and fostering a culture that encourages both resiliency and remorse. And classmates stepping up to report bullying, call out the bully and provide support for the victim. Plenty of people could have done right by Rebecca.
I believe — I must believe — that adolescents accused of such savagery aren’t born that way. They’re made. They learn it from others, from the toxic environment around them. It is the only explanation that allows me to think we can still reach the bullies, still appeal to their consciences. And it’s the only one that guarantees that the girls who stand accused of stalking Rebecca Sedwick will forever nurse an awful remorse. As they should.
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.