By attorney Melba Pearson, Special to THELAW.TV
Two girls were charged this week with aggravated stalking, in connection with the suicide of a classmate. It is alleged that the non-stop bullying of 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick by the 14-year-old and 12-year-old defendants caused her to commit suicide. Rebecca was allegedly bullied over a dispute about a boy, and was so overwhelmed that she jumped from the top of a silo, causing her death.
This seems to be a stretch for those of us who grew up before the Internet was so big. We all remember the mean kids in school, who stuffed classmates into lockers, or started nasty rumors about a girl who wasn't part of the "in" crowd.
Now, these actions have gone to a new level … the Internet. Keep in mind that today, one's entire identity and reputation is linked to the Internet. As an adult, negative reviews on the Internet can impact your business or your ability to get a job. To a teen, who is not as emotionally developed, negative posts on the Internet, in addition to day-to-day bullying in school, can seem like the end of the world. No one sends their child to school to be tortured … and that's what it feels like to the victim of bullying.
What led to the charges were Facebook posts, which included the statement: "Yes I know I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself, but I don't give a ____." This post by the older of the two girls charged clearly shows no remorse that her actions hurt someone so deeply that it caused death.
The charge of aggravated stalking is a felony. By law, if you choose, with cruel intent, to repeatedly follow, harass or cyber-stalk another person, and make a credible (real) threat to that person, then you can be found guilty of aggravated stalking. There may be evidence in this case that there was a physical confrontation between the girls and Rebecca, which could be where there was a credible threat. Depending on what the girls were doing or saying, the taunting of Rebecca at school, and posting nasty messages on the Internet, can all be deemed under the law to be stalking.
The charge carries a maximum of five years in prison under Florida law. That is not to say they will be sentenced to the maximum. There are many other resolutions to this case, including probation with community service hours, counseling or a diversionary program that, if successfully completed, could result in the charges being dropped.
Many people may disagree with the charging of these students, but this is a good way to teach them (and others) that each person has to be responsible for his or her actions. If, in fact, the posts made after Rebecca's death are true, then there is a clear disconnect and a lack of humanity in these girls. Punishment may be the wakeup call they need and therapy may address whatever is pushing them to behave in that manner. Hopefully, this will put the two girls on the path to being productive and sensitive citizens.
The author, Melba Pearson, is a prosecutor in South Florida.