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Law & Order

Sedwick Case Could Hasten Statewide Crackdown On Cyberbullying

rebecca_sedwick.jpg

TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who last week arrested two middle-school girls for their alleged roles in the suicide of a third girl, says there's a message for bullies and their parents.

"When are we going to stand up, as a society, and say, 'Bullying is unacceptable and there are consequences?' " he said.

Judd's department arrested 14-year-old Guadalupe Shaw and 12-year-old Katelyn Roman on charges of felony aggravated stalking in the suicide of Rebecca Sedwick, who jumped to her death last month at an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland. The case has drawn national attention because it is alleged to have included cyber-bullying, with Sedwick facing online messages such as, "You’re ugly," "Why are you still alive?" and "Go kill yourself."

Now, Judd, who is president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, is calling for other types of penalties for cyber-bullying. That includes counseling and anti-bullying classes, anger-management classes through the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and — perhaps most daunting for youths — the loss of access to cell phones.

Sedwick's suicide came just weeks after a new law went into effect, adding cyber-bullying to the public school system's list of prohibited behavior. As of July 1, students and school employees are protected from harassment via technological and electronic communications — even beyond the school grounds. 

State Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat and sponsor of the new law (SB 626), said its implementation is moving forward, but not fast enough for many parents and educators.

"People are upset that action wasn't taken sooner," he said. "Sometimes legislation can't catch up with the realities of life."

The law defines bullying as "teasing, social exclusion, threat, intimidation, physical violence, or emotional pain or discomfort." The bullying doesn't have to take place at the school if it "substantially interferes with or limits the victim’s ability to participate or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school or substantially disrupts the education process or interferes with the orderly operation of a school."

State Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said the implementation varies by district but overall is going well.

"Most of the superintendents welcomed this law, because they knew it was a problem, and they needed the legal authority to reach out and do something about it," Montford said.

Both senators said they expect Sedwick's suicide to give a new urgency to implementing the law.

"I wish we could have implemented this bill several years ago, and hopefully, could have saved a life," Bullard said.

Judd said students at Lakeland's Crystal Lake Middle School corroborated stories about Shaw and Roman bullying Sedwick via name-calling, intimidation, threats to beat her up and at least one physical fight.

According to Judd, Shaw led as many as 15 girls in bullying Sedwick in person, and nasty messages continued online after Sedwick switched schools.

"When we looked at the totality of circumstances, this went far beyond bullying," he said. "This was stalking. This was aggravated stalking of a child."

Judd said he made the decision to arrest the 14-year-old Shaw after she posted an online response to the suicide.

"Guadalupe sends this message: 'Yes, I bullied Rebecca, and she killed herself, and I don't give a 'bleep,' " Judd said. "And that was the last straw."

Shaw and her family maintain that her account was hacked to post that comment, but Judd is skeptical. He said his investigators told him they had a good case. "Guadalupe had a history of bullying people back to elementary school," Judd said during an interview Monday.