The unprecedented felony charges against two young girls in Florida accused of harassing a classmate so much that she jumped to her death may mark a turning point in how U.S. law enforcement agencies react to the problem of cyberbullying and stalking.
Grady Judd, the sheriff of Polk County, said in an interview this week that his department had not yet completed its investigation when he decided Monday to arrest the minors, ages 12 and 14, after the older girl continued to post abusive messages about the victim, Rebecca Ann Sedwick, even after her death.
“Obviously, this had progressed from bullying to stalking,” Judd said Thursday. “It is a repeated term of harassment that causes emotional distress.”
Rebecca, 12, had been targeted for about 10 months by the girls, who told her that she was “ugly” and “should go kill herself” on numerous occasions, according to the arrest affidavit that was released publicly under Florida law.
After Rebecca jumped off a silo at an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland on Sept. 9, police said, the older girl posted further messages on Facebook admitting, “Yes ik (I know) I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but (I don’t care).”
“After her outrageous rants, we had to take her into custody,” Judd said.
In taking a tough stand, Judd has electrified the growing movement that wants to sharpen the battle against malicious juvenile bullying, which has expanded and intensified in the era of social media.
Even before the arrests, Florida had become a national trendsetter in 2004 when it passed a major cyberbullying amendment to its criminal code, a law that spurred other states to follow suit.
States across the nation have a mix of strong and weak laws, unrelated apparently to partisan politics, urbanization or wealth. Texas and Wyoming, along with Florida, are conservative states with strong laws, as are liberal states such as Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maryland. At the same time, California shares relatively weak laws with Mississippi, Minnesota and Nevada.