Cyberbullying

After Rebecca Sedwick’s suicide, more questions linger

Rebecca Sedwick will never graduate from high school or attend the prom. She’ll never sit in the stands of a homecoming football game.  She did not live to see her 13th birthday.  On September 9, she killed herself.

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On September 9th, Rebecca jumped to her death. The twelve year-old committed suicide, at least in part, due to cyberbullying.

And last night, over a month after her death, two girls — ages 12 and 14 — have been charged with felony aggravated stalking, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Grady Judd held a press conference on Oct. 15 saying that authorities acted fast because the accused girls’ parents were contacted by police but failed to cooperate. The girls continued to log onto their social media accounts.  One of them even bragged about the bullying on a Facebook post.

“‘Yes, I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself but I don’t give a …’ and you can add the last word yourself,” the sheriff said, quoting a Facebook post the older girl made Saturday.

One family lost a daughter. Two others stand to lose theirs.

Questions, More Questions

And we are left to wonder why: why a young girl – a 12-year-old girl – with her entire life before her, cut her wrists, self-mutilated and then climbed an abandoned tower and jumped to her death. Why didn’t anyone say anything when she threatened suicide online? Why didn’t her friend call for help when she changed her online name to “that dead girl” and messaged him to say, “I’m jumping?”

Why would a 14-year-old feel that she had the right to tell another child to “drink bleach and die”?  Why would she convince as many as 14 other girls to bully Rebecca?  And, why would those girls join in on the torment?

For over a year, the girls intimidated Rebecca. They tormented her online and at school. They called her names, the sheriff said, and — at one point — the younger girl, once her best friend, even beat her up at school.

Why didn’t those parents step in?

And then there is the disbelief.  How could a 14 year-old be so calloused as to brag about pushing Rebecca to her death? How could a disagreement over a boy lead to this?

RELATED: The Rise of Cyberbullying: The Case Of Rebecca Sedwick

Now, what will these families do?  How will they cope?  And, how will we?

Over the last two years, several suicides have been prompted – at least in part – by cyberbullying. And despite school programs, and media attention, and new laws, it’s a trend that just does not seem to slow down.

Rebecca could not find safety, not at a new school, not even at home.  And she wasn’t mature enough to turn off the phone or disconnect.

In a world where our lives are becoming more virtual than actual, where people hurl anonymous insults at one another from behind computer screens, where children text, tweet and Facebook instead of speak, where a mother is too afraid that her daughter would “hate” her if she took away her cell phone, where an adult is not willing to say that maybe their 12-year-old is too young to have a phone or a social media account, not even middle-schoolers are safe.

They are not safe from each other or themselves. But they are in danger of so much more. Not all children will bully or be bullied. But, how many of them are becoming increasingly calloused?  To the point where they are incapable of feeling empathy or remorse?  How many are at danger of losing their humanity?  How many will look the other way when one of their classmates tells another, “go kill yourself?”

When so many adults did, there’s no way we can expect them to do otherwise.

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This story originally published on WLRN in October, 2013: http://bit.ly/1p3nlvq

 

 

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Cyberbullying Law Gives Educators Power To Intervene Outside Of School

Gabrielle Molina was a seventh grader in Queens, New York.  Her friends and parents say that she was smart.  She was ambitious and loved science. Her father said that she wanted to join the U.S. Air Force and then study law.

cyberbullying chartOn May 23rd her 15 year-old sister forced open their bedroom door and found her lifeless.  Gaby hanged herself.  She was 12.  In her suicide note she apologized to her family and said that she was bullied.

Her classmates harassed her, calling her a slut, and teased her about looks. They even posted a video on the internet showing the 5-foot tall girl getting beaten.

Cases like these have become all too common and have prompted legislative action.  Governor Rick Scott signed HB 609 into law, expanding Florida’s current anti-bullying law to include “cyberbullying.”

The new law, which went into effect on July 1st, gives schools more power to intervene in cases of cyberbullying which take place outside of school.  In the past, administrators’ ability to act was limited. They could only intervene if the bullying occurred on school property, or in the course of a school-sponsored program, or on a school bus.

Now if cyberbullying “substantially” interferes with or disrupts the educational process, administrators may regulate and punish it — even when it originates on a computer or device off campus.

“As an educator and legislator, I’m pleased to see that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle came together to bring this bill to law,” said Senator Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, who sponsored the bill in the upper chamber. “In our digital age and society teachers and administrators need the ability to protect our Florida gems from the unwanted attacks students receive online.”

Bullying is not new, but the far-reach of 21st century technology is.  This is the age of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and the ever-growing world of social media — where insults and names and embarrassing moments no longer live in our memories or slam books or notes, but they have the potential to live forever in cyberspace.

And teenagers are hooked on technology and more connected than ever before.  They text, they tweet, instagram, snapchat, facebook and vine.  Yes, these are all verbs now.  And it is almost impossible to monitor.

According to a 2012 Pew Internet Project survey, 78% of teens now have a cell phone and send an average of 60 text messages per day.  About three in four (74%) teens ages 12-17 say they access the internet on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices.

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78% of teens have a cell phone and send an average of 60 text messages per day, and bout three in four teens access the internet on cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices.

The need to socialize among teens is nothing new.  I can remember spending hours on the phone with my friends when I was a kid and passing notes in class.  What teenaged girl never feared the teacher apprehending a note and reading it out loud to the class?

The notes have disappeared.  But the messages have not.  Teens, more acutely aware of their popularity – quantitatively measured in the number of friends, followers and/or likes received on their social media sites – and reputation than any other segment of the population, are constantly communicating and grooming their online presence.

Between classes, during lunch and any chance that they get, kids are on their phones or tablets.  And with the ability to photograph and videotape just about anything, at any time, anyone can be victimized.  And one mistake can live forever online.

And, very often, they do.  Gone are the days when the worst thing that a bully did was steal your lunch money.  With the prevalence of the internet in teenagers’ everyday lives, it may become very difficult – even next to impossible – to escape the torment.

Cyberbullies send mean text messages or emails, spread rumors on social networking sites, and send or post embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or create fake profiles.

A bully’s torment is no longer restricted to school; it is a constant onslaught of cyberattacks that reach kids at home, and on their most precious device, their cellphone.  And because quite often the attacks are posted anonymously, the origins are difficult to trace.  And once something is posted online, it can be difficult – sometimes nearly impossible – to remove.

The results can be tragic, like they were in the recent case of 15 year-old Monique Griego of Maryland who committed suicide after online bullies assaulted her with messages like, “I hope you die.  Go kill yourself.”

Or the case of the 15 year-old Audrie Pott, a California teen who was a member of a middle school marching band that performed at President Obama’s first inaugural parade in 2009.  Who, like Rehtaeh Parsons of Canada, committed suicide after allegedly being raped and then cyber-bullied after the attacks.  Having photos of themselves — during the attacks — go viral.

Or Jessica Laney, a popular 16 year-old soccer player in Pasco County, Florida who received constant anonymous messages telling her that she was fat, she was mean, no one liked her.  Messages telling her that she should die.  Jessica hanged herself.

These are the senseless tragedies that this new law seeks to avoid. But alone, it cannot end cyberbullying.  Kids live their lives online.  They are constantly connected.  More than ever, it is important for parents to keep track of what their kids are doing, both in the real world and the cyberworld.

This new law can be dangerous because it could give parents a false sense of security.  In most cases, school officials were already intervening in the case of bullying.

In the case of Gabrielle Molina, after the video of the fight went viral, a school counselor set up a meeting with Gabby’s parents and between the two girls.  No one knew the extent of the cyberbullying, except Molina’s friends and older sister, who did not speak up until after the girl’s death. The same is true in the Griego, Pott and Laney cases.  No adult in those girls’ lives knew about the cyberbullying that they endured.

Parents are a child’s best advocate.  More than ever, it is important for them to know what is going on in their lives and to monitor their cellphone and Internet activity.  And kids also need to know that it is important to come forward and ask for help when they or a friend are in danger.

Schools, administrators and teachers are doing everything they can to keep kids safe, but we don’t go home with them.  And we cannot police kids’ ever-growing online activity outside of school.  Too often, we do not discover what is going on at home, until something tragic happens.

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Originally published on WLRN.com in July, 2013: http://bit.ly/1oXF5bo