Girls Charged with Felony in Suicide of Bullied 12-Year-Old: Why Civil Litigation Is a Better Approach

Girls Charged with Felony in Suicide of Bullied 12-Year-Old: Why Civil Litigation Is a Better Approach

by Adele Kimmel, Managing Attorney

Two girls, ages 12 and 14, have been criminally charged with a felony in the tragic case of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a 12-year-old Florida girl who committed suicide last month after enduring a year of online and face-to-face bullying. As reported in the NY Times, Sheriff Grady Judd felt he had no choice but to file criminal charges after the 14-year-old posted the following offensive comment on Facebook this past weekend: “Yes ik [I know] I bullied Rebecca nd she killed herself but IDGAF [I don’t give a f**k] ♥”

“She forced this arrest,” Sheriff Judd said.

I understand Judd’s frustration but question the wisdom of filing criminal charges against the kids. In her recent posting on Slate, Emily Bazelon raises the right question: “Why are we blaming two young teenagers instead of holding the adults around them…responsible?”

To curb bullying, there are many steps we need to take as parents, community members, and school leaders. But one effective tool—that will both reduce bullying and hold wrongdoers accountable—is a civil lawsuit. This is precisely why Public Justice launched its Anti-Bullying Campaign—to hold school districts and officials accountable when they fail to take appropriate action to protect our kids from bullying.

This is not to say that the girls who bullied Rebecca should not be held accountable for their deeply disturbing behavior. Indeed, had the adults around them—their parents, teachers, and school administrators—addressed the girls’ behavior and acted to stop the bullying, Rebecca might not have jumped to her death.

The aggressors’ parents and school personnel failed Rebecca and her tormentors by turning a blind eye. The parents apparently did nothing to monitor their kids’ online access, even after the girls admitted to bullying Rebecca before her death. I share the outrage that Judd expressed on the Today show.

But I also can’t help but wonder why adult leaders at Rebecca’s former middle school, who reportedly were long aware of the bullying, did nothing to protect Rebecca. According to the NY Times, Rebecca’s mother says she complained to school officials for several months about the bullying to no avail, so she pulled Rebecca out of the school.

When the dust settles on this emotionally charged issue, the evidence will likely show that the responsibility for Rebecca’s bullying is shared by the harassers, their parents, and the school officials who failed to intervene. If it does, then the harassers’ parents and school district could be held accountable through a civil lawsuit—where they would have to pay damages to Rebecca’s family and, in the school district’s case, perhaps take steps to change the way that schools address and respond to bullying.


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