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Felony charges for school bullying place Florida in ‘uncharted territory’

A decision by a Florida sheriff to arrest two girls, ages 12 and 14, on felony charges for bullying a classmate until she committed suicide has divided experts and reverberated far beyond the town where the tragic events unfolded.

Some experts said the arrests were a just response and will help draw attention to the problem of online bullying, a growing dynamic among the nation’s youth as more of them spend time on mobile gadgets. Others questioned the use of criminal charges and argued that the arrests will only prolong the pain in this case.

Rebecca Ann Sedwick, 12, jumped to her death from the top of a silo at a derelict cement plant last month. On Monday, the Polk County sheriff’s department arrested two of her classmates, charging them with aggravated stalking, a third-degree felony. According to affidavits filed in the case, the girls’ actions were “a contributing factor” in Sedwick’s suicide.

They urged Sedwick to kill herself, authorities said. The 12-year-old, at the behest of the 14-year-old, beat her. After Sedwick’s death, the older girl posted on her Facebook page: “Yes ik (I know) I bullied Rebecca nd she killed her self but IDGAF (I don’t give a f---),” according to news reports.

Under Florida law, the name of anyone charged with a felony is public record. Following standard operating procedure, the sheriff’s office released the names of the arrestees as well as their mug shots. The Washington Post typically does not identify juveniles charged with a crime.

“People need to know who felons are in the community, whether they’re adults or children,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd at a news conference Tuesday, in which he urged parents to be aware of their children’s behavior.

Sue Scheff, who runs P.U.R.E., a resource group for parents with troubled youth, commended Judd. “Hats off to the sheriff,” she said. “I think it’s great. I think parents need to wake up and be shaken up a little bit.”

Other experts said that arresting the two girls might convey the opposite message. “The decision to charge them almost seems to take responsibility away from the adults,” said Nadine Connell, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas. She said adolescents are too immature to understand the consequences of bullying, but that parents and school officials had an obligation to intervene earlier.

Juveniles have been charged in bullying cases before. In 2010, five were charged after the suicide of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts high school student. Their names were also made public.

Yet for a defendant as young as 12 to be charged with a felony for bullying surprised experts, despite the extreme and sustained nature of the abuse Sedwick received.

“I think this is uncharted territory,” said Justin Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Patchin also questioned Judd’s decision. “He wants to make a statement, He wants to let them know: ‘If you do this, I’m going to come after you.’ I just don’t know if it’s going to work.”

Judd told reporters that the older defendant was dating a boy who had previously been seeing Sedwick, and this previous relationship apparently made the 14-year-old uncomfortable.

So she began bullying Sedwick and Sedwick’s friends last winter. Witnesses told detectives they heard the 14-year-old tell Sedwick she should “drink bleach and die.” Sedwick’s peers soon ostracized her as a result of the older girl’s influence, according to the affidavits.

The younger arrestee, once a friend of Sedwick, turned on her and instigated a fight with Sedwick at their school in February, according to the documents. Witnesses told investigators that Sedwick did not fight back.

Sedwick became increasingly desperate. As Judd recounted, she tried to run away from home and she received treatment after her mother found cuts on her wrists. After the fight, her mother removed her from the school.

She had started at a new school this year, but she continued to receive abusive messages on her phone, the sheriff said.

While the 14-year-old is being held in custody, the judge sent the younger girl home because of her remorse and her family’s cooperation with the investigation.

The department continues to gather evidence and other charges are still possible. Investigators are seeking records from Ask.fm and Kik, the social networks that the girls used to communicate. Because the companies are based abroad, the legal process for obtaining those records will be more complicated, the sheriff said.

Scheff, the parental advocate, argued that the defendants were not too young to take responsibility for their alleged actions. “If they were old enough to be on social media sites, or mature enough to be using the language that they were using . . . they should be held accountable,” she said.

But Connell, the criminologist, said that by releasing the girls’ names and charging them with felonies, the sheriff might only make it more difficult for them to put their past behind them and become productive adults.

“You’ve lost three girls instead of just one,” she said.

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