(CNN) — The Florida cyberbullying case in which two girls, ages 14 and 12, face felony stalking charges after the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick could lead other law agencies to file similar felony charges against adolescent bullies, experts said.
Authorities often place juveniles accused of cyberabuse under parental or school supervision; or, if the youths are charged, they face lesser offenses such as hacking or identity theft, experts said.
But the Florida case sets itself apart nationally for several reasons: It involves felonies in the suicide of a child so young, the defendants are also very young classmates, and the 14-year-old defendant’s mother now faces a child abuse charge in a separate case, experts said.
“A lot of traditional law enforcement officers are looking at this and saying somebody has to do something, and when parents don’t stand up to the plate, we have to,” said Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security attorney in New York, who also is executive director of stopcyberbullying.org.
“Everybody will be following this closely,” said Justin W. Patchin, a co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a criminal justice professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. “We’ve had other attempts (at felony charges in cyberbullying-related suicides), but nothing has been successful at the felony level that I’m aware of, especially when dealing with kids this young.
The case could give victims hope that stalkers or cyberbullies will face long-term accountability, he said.
“Many people may be reluctant to file charges because they don’t see they will get a conviction, so it will help law enforcement and prosecutors in other jurisdictions on whether it is possible to get a conviction in a criminal case — even a felony case,” Patchin said.
One activist, whose son committed suicide after cyberbullying, said the case in Polk County, Florida, could mark a new, tougher level of law enforcement.
“We have finally reached a tipping point where adults are taking this seriously and where law enforcement in the past has shirked its responsibility in the area of exercising and enforcing the laws,” said Debbie Johnston, who in 2008 helped usher in one of the nation’s toughest anti-bullying laws in Florida with the passage of the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up For All Students Act, named in honor of her 15-year-old son.
“Law enforcement needs to enforce the laws that are on the books and stop turning a blind eye simply because these are children,” she said.
But the Florida case is likely to invoke a formidable defense strategy frequently seen in bullying cases: the mental state of the suicide victim and the First Amendment rights of the defendants, a legal analyst said. People who commit suicide frequently have depression or family issues, experts said.
“This young girl, she had a history. She tried to kill herself before,” said legal analyst and defense attorney Richard Herman. “We have First Amendment issues here, is it really bullying?
“Who knows the mental state of mind, emotional state of mind of an individual, if you tell someone they should go jump off a cliff and they go do it, where do you hold the liability in here, how long, how pervasive?” Herman said. “There are a lot of issues here, but let’s face it. Cyberbullying is real, due to the technology today and the social websites out there. It is not like the old days where you spread a rumor. You push a button. It is all over the place now.”
Prosecutors have found it difficult to prove serious felony charges in other high-profile suicides allegedly caused by bullying or cyberintimidation, experts said.
The 2010 suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of Massachusetts led authorities to file felony charges against six high school students who allegedly tormented Phoebe, a recent Irish immigrant, after she dated two male defendants. But those charges were largely reduced to misdemeanors and probation. Phoebe was also dealing with depression.
In a 2009 Missouri case of 13-year-old Megan Meier committing suicide, Lori Drew, a 49-year-old mother, was accused of cyberbullying on MySpace, but her misdemeanor conviction was dismissed because the judge said the case raised constitutional questions.
In the Florida case, Rebecca Sedwick, 12, of Winter Haven jumped to her death on September 9 from the top of an abandoned concrete plant. Authorities said 14-year-old Guadalupe Shaw was Rebecca’s chief tormentor, even posting a Facebook message about it.
“Yes IK I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but IDGAF,” the message read. Authorities said the initials mean: “I don’t give a (expletive).”
Also charged with stalking is 12-year-old Kaitlyn Roman.
Guadalupe’s attorney, Andrea DeMichael, filed a written plea of not guilty on Thursday, the attorney said.
On Friday, Kaitlyn and her attorney appeared in a Polk County court for what was supposed to be an arraignment, but because prosecutors had yet to issue formal charging documents, Kaitlyn and defense attorney Jose Baez didn’t enter a plea, Baez said.
Baez described Kaitlyn as a “remarkable child” who feels “absolutely horrible for what happened to Rebecca,” he said.
Kaitlyn is now suspended from school and is in home confinement, Baez said.
“She was an A and B student from kindergarten all the way up to 7th grade, and this is, she is not what her mugshot or what the headlines are portraying her to be. She is a child, and I’m not going to allow her to be bullied and I’m not going to allow the system to bully her,” Baez said. “We plan on fighting this thing until the very end.
“I do want people to know is that Guadalupe Shaw is different than Kaitlyn Roman. It’s that simple. They’re two different people. The statements, the postings that I’ve heard mentioned are not attributable to Kaitlyn,” Baez added.
CNN does not typically identify minors who are charged as juveniles, but the network is doing so in this case because their identities have been publicized by law enforcement and have received extensive publicity in their local media.
The abusive behavior that authorities say prompted Rebecca’s suicide grew from a dispute between her and a former classmate over a boy they had both dated, police said this week.
Grady Judd, sheriff of Polk County, Florida, filed charges after the 14-year-old girl’s taunting post.
“She forced this arrest,” Judd said of the 14-year-old’s alleged decision to post the message.
“This went further than bullying,” Judd said. “This was stalking, and it occurred over about a 10-month period. Interventions were tried by the school and by the victim’s mom to no avail. At that point, law enforcement had to step in. And that’s why we made felony criminal charges, because if this can’t be taken care of at home, certainly, the system has an answer.”
Rebecca attempted suicide in December 2012, when she cut her wrists. The night before her deadly plunge, she sent a message to a boy she met on Facebook: “I’m jumping. I can’t take it anymore.”
As the case against Shaw proceeds, her mother is facing child abuse and child neglect charges in a separate case, authorities said. Vivian Vosburg, 30, was arrested last week after authorities received tips from residents that she might have been involved in beating children, Judd said. A minute-long video clip was posted online and showed a woman, whom Judd identified as Vosburg, punching two boys with her fist while shouting profanities.
After being arrested, Vosburg first said the beating was an accident but then said it “got out of hand” partly because she was having a bad day, Judd said.
Florida’s cyberbullying case involves the sort of tragedy that begs for a public response, but some experts said the remedies are complicated because the offenders’ conduct is juvenile by nature. Cyberbullying is the repeated harm inflicted by means of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.
“You do feel your emotions swell and you feel a reflexive call for justice,” said Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University.
The accused bullies are transitioning from child to teenager, struggling with peer perception, self-worth and identity, Hinduja said. That’s why parents and schools must be involved in addressing the problem. Hinduja said he wonders if the two defendants in the Florida case deserve a chance to be placed under strict supervision rather than have them “in the juvenile justice system and labeled deviants.”
“We’re treading new ground, and you need everyone not to freak out,” Hinduja said. “People said they deserve to be punished or in a juvenile home or facility. I do want to be gracious to everyone, but I want them to pause and take into consideration all these elements.”