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Bazelon: Charges against girls in suicide don’t solve problem

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013 11:26 p.m. CDT

After 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick committed suicide in Florida in September, I asked why kids write cruel taunts online like “Can u die please?” which is what one girl wrote to Rebecca as part of a fight over a boy that police say turned into a vicious spate of bullying.

Now two girls, ages 12 and 14, have been criminally charged with aggravated stalking in Rebecca’s case. The “tipping point,” Sheriff Grady Judd said, was another cruel post the 14-year-old wrote this past Saturday: “Yes ik [I know] I bullied Rebecca nd she killed her self,” then used a profanity to say she didn’t care.

“She forced this arrest,” the sheriff said.

I can understand his frustration. And yet: Criminal charges against the kids? Why are we blaming two young teenagers instead of holding the adults around them – their parents! – responsible? Why was this girl back online writing trash like this? Here’s an infuriating sentence from a news story: “Judd said neither family cooperated with investigators, so the girls were placed under arrest Monday, charged with the third-degree felony, detained for a few hours and released to their parents.” 

Judd also says the girls admitted to harassing Rebecca online before her death. So why didn’t an adult who loves them make sure they apologized and cooperated with the investigation, and prevent them from writing something so callous that it makes the poster seem like a monster?

Technically speaking, charging the girls with stalking doesn’t blame them for Rebecca’s death. But police and the press are clearly connecting those dots. And yet, as Deborah Temkin of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights wrote when Rebecca’s death began getting news media attention:

“Though very apparent that the young girl was targeted through cellphone-based social media, it has also been reported she was hospitalized for mental health and switched schools. It is not clear whether mental health services or other support continued after the youth left the hospital and attended the new school. ... We simply do not know the whole story to be able to say that bullying was the sole cause.”

Temkin also worries that the “bullycide” narrative emphasized in media coverage is becoming its own kind of risk factor for vulnerable kids: “We reinforce the notion to at-risk youth that suicide is a normal reaction to bullying, and not only that, these media reports suggest that if they do die by suicide, their name will be known across the country and perhaps the world – something any youth who feels alone and invisible could desire.” That raises the risk of suicide contagion – a real phenomenon, especially for teenagers.

• Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family and kids.

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