Rebecca Sedwick told her mother she loved her before going to bed that Sunday night, September 8. The next morning, the Lakeland, Fla., 12-year-old was supposed to wake up her 19-year-old sister Summer to do her hair before school. She didn’t. Normally, Rebecca would put on her school uniform, grab her cell phone, and head out the door. But on this morning, Rebecca took out her phone and cleared everything on it, deleting all of the pictures, videos, and texts. She then sent two text messages to friends who lived out of state.
“I’m jumping and I can’t take it anymore,” read one, sent to a 12-year-old boy in North Carolina. The other said, “This is my goodbye for everything.” She then changed her online username from Rebecca to “That Dead Girl” and left her phone on her bed.
At that point, Rebecca would have been running late to catch the 6:45 a.m. bus to Lawton Chiles Middle Academy, where she’d recently started. Instead, she walked down her street, a swampy side road lined with sleepy mobile homes huddled under large willow trees and dangling Spanish moss, and turned right at the peeling McDonald’s billboard advertising an Egg White Delight McMuffin. (“Great taste, all yolks aside.”)
As she walked down Main Street, her aunt drove by. She braked and asked Rebecca if she wanted a ride. Rebecca told her that she was headed to the bus stop, though she had already walked past it. She also wasn’t wearing her school uniform.
Rebecca’s aunt — her stepfather’s sister — called the girl’s mother, Tricia Norman, as she drove away. She was unnerved by what she would later describe as Rebecca’s “zombie”-like behavior. Tricia, who’d already gotten to her customer service job, didn’t answer her phone and didn’t return the missed call, figuring that if it had been an emergency, there would have been a message.
Rebecca turned left at the old Lakeland fire station and walked down North Eastside Drive. She squeezed through the fence of the abandoned Lakeland Cemex plant, a bleak industrial site next to U.S. Route 92. She made her way up the winding yellow metal ladder until she reached the top of the three-story silo.
Back at Rebecca’s house, Summer was just waking up. She went into Rebecca’s room to do her sister’s hair. Rebecca wasn’t there. Confused, she sat down on her sister’s bed, accidentally landing on Rebecca’s phone. She started going through it, but all that was left was one last text: “This is my goodbye for everything.”
By 6 that night, Rebecca still hadn’t come home. Summer called her mother, and Tricia called the school. Lawton Chiles Middle Academy informed Tricia that Rebecca never arrived that day. Though the school has an automated system to alert parents of their children’s absences, it was undergoing upgrades and wasn’t in use. Frantic, Tricia issued a missing person report.
The police found Rebecca’s body around 2:30 a.m. They didn’t immediately call her death a suicide, but Tricia knew right away what had happened.
Five weeks after Rebecca’s death, Lakeland Sheriff Grady Judd arrested two girls from Crystal Lake Middle School and charged both with aggravated stalking, a felony. Although they were minors, Judd released their names: Guadalupe Shaw, a 14-year-old who went to school with Rebecca, who was the purported ringleader, and 12-year-old Katelyn Roman, her accomplice. Judd claimed they had organized a network of up to 16 other teenagers who verbally and physically threatened Rebecca in school and then bombarded her social media accounts — particularly via her Ask.fm page and an app called Kik Messenger — with cruel comments, many urging her to kill herself. And that was what elevated Rebecca’s story from a small-town tragedy to global cautionary tale for an unchecked epidemic of cyberbullying.
Both Kik and Ask.fm are especially popular with teenagers desperate for more private social networks than Facebook, which is to be expected — teens don’t want to hang out with their parents, especially on the internet. Kik Messenger is a mobile instant messaging app that gives users a discreet way to chat and share videos and pictures. According to figures from this spring, more than 200,000 people sign up for the Kik app daily, and 50 million currently use it. Kik connects users with Facebook friends and people in their phone’s address book, giving them the ability to anonymously message one another. Friends and family say Rebecca often wasn’t even sure whom she was being bullied by.
Latvian-based Ask.fm, though still relatively unheard of in the States, has been a villain in the British press for over a year now and is also centered around anonymity. Since its launch in 2010, the site has steadily gained popularity, and it currently boasts over 70 million users worldwide. In the last year, the media has linked it to the suicides of nine different teenagers, including Rebecca, earning it the nickname “the killer app.”
But when you actually look into each story, the bullying started for these kids long before an Ask.fm account entered the picture. Irish teenagers Ciara Pugsley and Erin Gallagher had been attacked for their weight and appearance by peers at school. After the two girls killed themselves last fall, the Irish Examiner presented their deaths as part of a worrisome trend of cyberbullying-related suicides, quoting hysterical parents from the community calling for Ask.fm to be banned. British teenager Daniel Perry was tricked into Skyping with someone pretending to be a girl who liked him. He was blackmailed with screenshots of the conversation before jumping from a local bridge. At the time, The Mirror directly connected his death to other Ask.fm suicides. Another British teenager, Joshua Unsworth, was bullied by classmates who made fun of his laborer father and harassed him about his dating life. Much of the abuse came in the form of Ask.fm comments. After Joshua’s death, The Daily Mail described his Ask.fm page as “a stalker’s paradise.”
One could assume that the claustrophobic mix of physical and digital bullying could bring teens more easily to the brink of suicide. The question, though, is how much more easily? Statistically speaking, teenage suicide is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates have increased from 6.3% in 2009 to 7.8% in 2011. As of 2012, 1 in 6 teenagers report contemplating suicide and 1 in 12 have attempted it. That can’t be tied to cyberbullying alone, nor does it keep pace with the increase in reports of bullying and cyberbullying on a national level.
These stories, complete with hysterical calls for social media bans and sweeping legislative reforms, don’t exactly reflect what has been happening in Lakeland. Tricia Norman began moderating two different Facebook pages to organize the community and changed Rebecca’s Kik username from “That Dead Girl” to “That Missed Girl,” which became a slogan of sorts for her friends. The same technology that alienated and isolated Rebecca, that was so quickly held to blame, is also allowing the community to come together and heal.
About a month prior to Rebecca’s suicide, worries about Ask.fm hit a fever pitch in the U.K. after Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old from Leicestershire, England, hanged herself. Once again British media, and this time even Prime Minister David Cameron, hungry for someone to blame, aggressively went after Ask.fm, repeatedly calling for “youngsters” across the nation to boycott the site. Ask.fm’s team, which typically does not cooperate with press, issued a statement:
“Ask.fm is just a tool which helps people to communicate with each other, same as any other social network, same as phone, same as piece of paper and pen,” Ask.fm founder Mark Terebin posted on his page. “Don’t blame a tool, but try to make changes. Start with yourself. Be more polite, more kind, more tolerant of others. Cultivate these values in families, in schools.”
News vans litter the front lawn of Lakeland’s Crystal Lake Middle School as students leave for the day. A cameraman hanging out of a van’s open doors sips a sweaty iced coffee and smokes a cigarette. A field reporter crouches down into the grass in his suit, scrawling notes. The neighborhood is silent aside from the hum of idling cars and the occasional ticking bug. The suburban junior high school stretches across the top of a hill, perched over the body of water after which it’s named.
Lakeland, with its population of nearly 100,000, sits between Orlando and Tampa. It’s a quiet community of suburban neighborhoods surrounding a city center dotted with Spanish-style stucco buildings. Fast-food restaurants and strip malls line the sides of the nine large interstates that race through the area, spilling out into the satellite clusters of trailer parks and industrial yards that frame the city. Its largest claim to fame, before Rebecca, is that it was used as the filming location for the mall in Edward Scissorhands.
As the Florida sun goes down, parents start sheepishly trickling into the school’s cafeteria. Sheriff Judd is supposed to arrive at 5:30 to host one his Internet Safety Parent Nights. Though it’s a class he gives regularly to help parents keep up with the best ways to make sure their children use social media and smartphones responsibly, it’s never been the focus of this much attention.
The middle school’s cafeteria is decorated with hand-painted signs on the walls advertising which side is for hot breakfast and which is for cold. In the back, an American flag banner hangs from the ceiling advertising a 1-800 number you can call to report crimes anonymously. In the front corner of the room, there is a sign made from craft paper that reads “HELP CREATE A BULLYING FREE SCHOOL, no bullying, no fighting, no gossip.”
A throng of TV producers with their cameramen buzz around one other, dimming lights and attaching a half-dozen microphones to an empty podium sitting next to the projector screen. A school official finally walks through the double doors. “This isn’t a press conference,” she yells. “My first concern is for these folks here,” she says, waving toward the now-packed room of parents.
A moment later, cameramen quickly dislodge their rigs from their stands and race to grab a shot of the sheriff entering. Judd doesn’t acknowledge them. He heads to the rows of parents, shaking the hands of each one down the aisles. Sheriff Judd is handsome, not looking nearly as old as the archetypal mannerisms his sturdy small-town sheriff affectations call for.
“How many of you were bullied in school?” he asks the crowd, in a voice drenched with thick, down-home common sense. Almost every hand in the cafeteria goes up. He nods knowingly. “Mmm-hmm,” he croons before launching into an anecdote about the first time he encountered bullying as a police officer. “I was about a 20-year-old deputy and I did what all 20-year-olds would do: I called my mama,” he says as parents giggle.
He clicks through PowerPoint slides. On each one is the face of a known cyberbullying victim: Amanda Todd, Jeffrey Johnston, and Victoria Lindsay. He stops when he gets to Rebecca Sedwick’s slide. The genial sheriff melts away, leaving in his place a man who is still very visibly angry at what he’s seen in the last month.
“I can tell you ladies and gentlemen that I have grandchildren,” Judd starts. “On that fateful day, when I stood at the base of that cement silo and saw that baby — and that’s what she is when you’re a granddaddy — dead, I knew we had to find out why and we had to make every effort possible to change that dynamic.”
Parents in the cafeteria give Judd a standing ovation. He collects himself and fixes his sandy blonde hair back into place. The diplomatic, twangy Sheriff Judd slowly returns. He explains that the school tried to intervene with Rebecca’s bullying. He says Tricia did everything she could to separate Rebecca from the toxic relationships surrounding her.
“But the common denominator? It was access to what?” he asks. “Facebook. It was access to social media. Once the mom and the school successfully separated her from the bullies, they still found access to her online.”
Deputies went through Rebecca’s computer history and found Google searches for things like “how many Advil do you take to die,” “how many over-the-counter drugs do you take to die,” “what not to say to a cutter,” and “how do you get the razor blades out of the razor.” “Those are all warning signs,” Judd says, sounding exasperated.
Judd decided to arrest Guadalupe Shaw, the 14-year-old he believes was egging on a network of an estimated 16 other bullies, after they discovered that she was actively posting about Rebecca’s suicide on her Facebook page.
“Last Saturday we saw on the 14-year-old’s Facebook: ‘Yes I bullied Rebecca and yes she killed herself but I-D-G-A-F.’ I don’t give a, you can fill in the rest,” Judd says. “This girl knows she’s under criminal investigation. She knows we’re conducting a very thorough and detailed investigation. She knows we’re looking through records, and she’s still doing this?”
The Polk County sheriff’s department called Guadalupe’s family, asking them to bring her into the station. The family refused.
“You know what the parents said at the time?” Judd asks. “‘We’re not coming down there.’ Well, we don’t have a problem with that, we have these patrol cars and we’ll just come to you. So we drove out there and promptly arrested them.” Judd is very public about his plans to pursue charges for the families of Katelyn Roman and Guadalupe Shaw.
His next PowerPoint slide is a rundown of sites like Facebook, Instagram, Gmail, and instant messaging apps — any place where children can share photos. It would be wrong to call Judd technophobic. The sheriff’s scattershot approach in going after Rebecca’s bullies, their families, and the websites that were used reflects the generational hurdle he has, as a grandfather in his late fifties, in trying understand what happened to Rebecca. He understands that a lot of children used a handful of websites to say enough cruel things to a 12-year-old girl that she thought that the bullying would never end.
But finding and addressing the root of that problem is difficult, legally speaking. Florida has a bullying law, though it’s not exactly a punitive one. The Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act was signed into law in 2008. It defines bullying and cyberbullying as one student “systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress on one or more students.” All the bill requires, though, is that schools set up anti-bullying programs and have a system in place to quickly investigate claims of bullying and offer counseling for students; noncompliant schools are simply penalized some state funding.
According to the CDC’s literature on bullying, however, there’s an important distinction between bullying and what it refers to as “electronic aggression.” A 2012 study surveyed 15,000 teenagers, 20% of whom said they’d been bullied at school in the last year, with another 16% saying that bullying followed them home in the form of texts or online messages.
“Listen to me clearly, folks, we’re dealing with children who think like children,” Judd says. “Don’t say, ‘Well, they should have taken Rebecca’s cell phone away.’ She was the victim. Why should she be punished?”
Heading down Interstate 98, toward Lakeland’s neighboring town of Bartow, is Oak Hill Cemetery. There’s a burial plot in the far corner of the sprawling graveyard marked by a little white plaque that reads “Rebecca Ann Sedwick,” surrounded by flowers, wreaths, and stuffed animals. One of the teddy bears rests on a jar of Nutella.
Tricia, Summer, and a groundskeeper arrive together. The women stand under a nearby tree to get out of the mid-afternoon sun while the groundskeeper starts clearing Rebecca’s makeshift memorial so he can put in her tombstone.
Tricia refers to Rebecca in both the present and the past tense as she speaks, something she admits she’s having a tough time with. She’s wearing a lime-green shirt with the word “bullying” crossed out across it. Summer and her mother are selling them to raise money for an anti-bullying charity. She speaks from behind a large pair of sunglasses with an unnerving mix of motherly affection, still very raw anger, and a robotic TV-interview-developed sadness.
“A year ago, September, that’s when the bullying started at school,” Tricia says. “It was just a lot of teenage drama is what I basically called it at the time.”
Rebecca was getting good grades and was for the most part a happy 12-year-old. She had a boyfriend in her same age group who would come over and hang out. And Tricia would always supervise them, she says. “Becca, in my opinion, was too young to date, but she had a little boy named Darren who lived down the street from us,” Tricia says as Summer lets out a very big-sister type of laugh. “She called him her boyfriend, but to me he was a friend.”
At the time, Rebecca ran in similar circles as Guadalupe Shaw, a 14-year-old who, says Tricia, was starting to do things with boys and she wanted everyone to know. And that’s why Guadalupe started messaging Darren.
“She sent him inappropriate messages telling him that she wanted to do certain sexual things to him,” Tricia says. “She was talking to him about how she was at a basketball court and two guys were doing certain sexual things to her and just kind of putting herself out there.”
Darren had accidentally left his Facebook messenger signed in on Rebecca’s phone. As Guadalupe sent Darren explicit messages, Rebecca could see them all. She confronted the older girl about it. Guadalupe apologized, explaining that she didn’t think the messages would hurt Rebecca’s feelings.
“I mean, how would she not know that that would bother you? But I guess that’s just a mom point of view,” Tricia says.
After that, though, things soured even more between Guadalupe and Rebecca. Guadalupe decided that if Rebecca wasn’t going to be her friend, then everyone else was going to hate Rebecca too. “People would message her on Facebook and say, ‘Well, so-and-so told me this and so-and-so told me that. And I want to fight you after school,’” according to Tricia. “And Becca would say, ‘Well, I didn’t say this. You’re listening to the wrong person.’”
By that winter the bullying had gotten much worse, Tricia says. In December, Rebecca cut her wrists in a suicide attempt that left her hospitalized for three days, followed by counseling. Rebecca also didn’t feel like she was getting emotional support from her biological father, Ken Sedwick, who was living with a girlfriend and her children. In February 2013, Tricia went to Rebecca’s school — by that point there had been five separate instances when Guadalupe or her friends tried to hurt Rebecca at school. Each time she had reported it to the office.
“Five times in two weeks,” Tricia says, shaking her head. “Me and her went in and sat down and she told them, ‘Guadalupe pushed me in the hall.’” The school told Tricia that they couldn’t prove any of it ever happened because the videotapes that the school uses in the hallways are taped over at the end of each school day. Soon after, Tricia decided to pull Rebecca out of Crystal Lake and homeschool her.
Separating Rebecca from her bullies physically wasn’t enough, though. “After her trying to block them and making another Facebook and coming at it that way,” Tricia says, “she just got swamped with it. All at one time. And she’s not old enough to handle something like that. No 12-year-old is.”
According to Tricia, it was that same winter that another boy came into the picture. Thirteen-year-old John Borgen and Rebecca starting seeing each other behind Tricia’s back. After Rebecca left school, John started dating Guadalupe. He was still very vocal about how much he liked Rebecca, though, and Guadalupe wasn’t happy about it.
John would later “out” himself to reporters a month after Rebecca’s suicide, saying that his relationship with Guadalupe was at the center of the continued bullying. He told the press that he was shocked and upset that Rebecca didn’t tell him what was going on.
Tricia had restricted Rebecca’s internet access on the home computer and didn’t have a 3G plan for her phone. She could, however, still use mobile apps like Facebook, Kik Messenger, and Ask.fm on the house Wi-Fi.
“If I had shut it off at a certain time and she couldn’t get on it, a lot of this would not have been able to happen,” she says, walking toward the pickup truck with Rebecca’s tombstone in it. “I don’t think it would have been so ‘Nobody cares about me.’”
Down the road from Oak Hill Cemetery in the lobby of attorney Andrea DeMichael’s office, a conference room door bursts open. A cameraman starts walking a lighting rig to a car outside. DeMichael recently took on Guadalupe’s case.
“I’m still not used to seeing myself on TV,” DeMichael says with a nervous laugh to the producer as she walks them to the door.
Taking a seat in her wood-paneled office, she deflates into the chair and confesses how relieved she is to no longer be on camera. Before charges were filed against Guadalupe, DeMichael was giving legal counsel to the Shaw family while the 14-year-old was under investigation.
“They were just two chicks looking for the same class and they started talking,” DeMichael says of Rebecca and Guadalupe’s friendship. “Whenever Rebecca had a problem, she would confide in my client and my client would comfort her and try to stick up for her.”
DeMichael says the bullying that Rebecca and Guadalupe did to each other wasn’t at the level that prosecutors are saying it was. “From what I’ve heard and the things that I’ve learned, it seems like the bullying most girls and probably a lot of guys go through when they’re in middle school or high school or just growing up,” she says.
Though she admits Sheriff Judd is “charismatic,” she feels his tactic of publicly naming Guadalupe and Katelyn only feeds the media spectacle around stories like this and does nothing except promote more bullying.
And this isn’t exactly unfounded: On the day that Guadalupe’s and Katelyn’s names were released, news sites writing about the arrests gave users more than enough information to quickly find Guadalupe’s still-active Twitter account, @Guadalupeborgen. Within an hour of Guadalupe and Katelyn being named chief bullies in Rebecca’s case, they were attacked online by people saying they should have been the ones to kill themselves.
“These kids that are this age can get really, really, really caught up in something like this,” DeMichael says. “The same thing could be happening to these girls that have been identified.”
DeMichael laughs sadly and tells me that the very first thing she did when she took the case was change her name on Facebook. She didn’t want anyone to be able to find it and cyberbully her for defending a cyberbully.
“Bullying has become its own monster in our culture now because, like I said, these kids can’t escape it,” DeMichael says, shaking her head. “Of course they’re accused of bullying this girl here, but you got to think of the impact of, you know, they can’t even grasp the intensity of this.”
That larger cycle of abuse that DeMichael senses came into the forefront that afternoon when was announced that Guadalupe’s mother, Vivian Vosburg, was also arrested by Polk County law enforcement and charged with two counts of child abuse with bodily harm and four counts of child neglect.
A one-minute video posted to Facebook shows Vosburg allegedly beating one of her sons as she pulls him away from another boy he was wrestling with. In the video, as the woman hits the boy, other children laugh and curse at him. Chelsea, Guadalupe’s sister, posted the video in July, captioning it: “Lmao Haha My brothers fighten — got real doe hahaha.” Vosburg told police she was stressed from a long day working at a local dollar store and was merely trying to pull the two boys apart.
On Oct. 19, the day that would have been Rebecca’s 13th birthday, a judge sets Vosburg’s bail at $300,000. Brought together by various Facebook memorial pages run by Tricia’s and Rebecca’s friends, a large group gathers at her newly planted tombstone. They cover the plot with flowers and balloons. Someone rests a big blue stuffed animal, a duck wearing a bow tie, across the front of the red-brown headstone that reads “Rest In Paradise, Beautiful” in white letters.
Tricia told everyone to wear bright, fun-colored clothes — it’s a birthday party. There are cupcakes and ice cream. Rebecca’s closest friends and family, and a dozen or so people from the area who just wanted to support Tricia, sing “Happy Birthday” to Rebecca’s grave and then release lime-green balloons. The humid air around the small grave fills with balloons and tears and then it all slowly comes to a close.
Afterwards, Rebecca’s sister Summer and Alecia Wilkins, 18, a close family friend, sit at a Burger King up the road and attempt to have something resembling a normal Saturday afternoon out to lunch. Rebecca was helping Alecia plan her wedding and was supposed to be one of her bridesmaids. “She was kind of like a little sister to me,” Alecia says.
The last time Rebecca talked to Alecia about being bullied was back in July. Rebecca sent her a message on Kik Messenger in the middle of the night. A guy had been sending Rebecca hurtful messages and she was really upset over it.
“I don’t remember the kid’s name, but he was just saying some really nasty stuff to her that was really unnecessary,” she says. “I talked to her about that.”
After that night in July, though, Rebecca didn’t bring it up again to Alecia. In fact, according to everyone around Rebecca, she was getting better. She seemed happier in general. She spoke excitedly about starting at a new middle school in the fall.
“I guess she didn’t really want to upset me because of the whole wedding thing,” Alecia says. “I don’t know how she felt about it, but I always told her that I was there for her to talk to.”
Summer brushes her blonde hair back as she pulls up a screenshot on her phone of the last message she left Rebecca on Facebook in February, right before their mother made Rebecca delete her page. “I told her not to listen to them because they were jealous of her, and I even put on there that I wouldn’t know what I would do if I lost my baby sister,” she says.
Summer agrees that by July, her sister had appeared to be feeling better about everything. Rebecca was making plans for the future. She was working on getting a scholarship to college. The two sisters made plans to take the ACTs together. “They were going to let her take that because she scored higher than everybody,” Summer says.
“That’s how smart she was,” Alecia chimes in.
And while Rebecca cleared her phone before leaving the house the morning of her death, she did leave behind a trail of what she had been silently going through. What Summer discovered in her sister’s room painted a grim picture.
“I found one of the razors that she used, and I gave it to the cop as evidence or whatever because you could tell where she broke it off to get to the razor part,” Summer says. “We found all kinds of new stuff that we didn’t know she had.”
Rebecca didn’t leave a formal suicide note. But she had notebooks she wrote in. In one of her larger notebooks, she wrote poetry. One of the poems described what it was like to hurt herself and what it felt like to cut herself.
“This quote on this shirt is something she wrote in one of her notebooks,” Summer says pointing to a picture on her phone of one of the T-shirts she and her mother are selling. It reads, “Everyday more and more kids kill themselves because of bullying. How many lives have to be lost before people realize words do matter?”
“The first quote in her notebook,” Alecia says.
“My mom said she loved this quote. It’s very powerful,” Summer adds.
Kids making fun of Rebecca at Crystal Lake Middle School hasn’t stopped. Summer says that she’s had more than a few guys message her on Facebook after hearing about Rebecca — to hit on her. And Alecia says that a handful of Rebecca’s former classmates think the whole thing is pretty funny.
“I know one of the kids was being stupid and he jumped off a chair or whatever,” she says. “He stood up on his chair in class and said, ‘Oh no, I’m falling.’ And then he fell on the floor and started laughing.”
“There’s people going around the school saying, ‘She deserved what she got,’ ‘She had it coming,’” Summer says.
There was also Brianna Earls, a girl at Rebecca’s school who created a fake Facebook page called “Brianna’s Next” full of hurtful comments that she planted there herself. She claimed that the girls who bullied Rebecca were after her next. She later had to explain to police and local press that the whole thing was a hoax.
“She’s doing it all for attention because she knew we were getting all the newspeople,” Summer says. “We don’t enjoy it that much.”
Neither Alecia nor Summer had ever heard of Ask.fm before Rebecca started getting bullied on it. Since then, though, they’ve heard more and more stories of teenagers killing themselves after being harassed on the site. And while they might not have ever heard of or used Ask.fm, they both experienced bullying in school that followed them home via the internet when they were Rebecca’s age. And they both have stories of being attacked by classmates on AOL Instant Messenger, Myspace, or even Facebook in its early days. At the time, parents and teachers told them what they told Rebecca: that they should ignore it. That the bullying would eventually go away.
“I never ignored it, because I couldn’t. You can’t get those kind of things out of your head,” Alecia says, nervously playing with her phone. “There’s different ways to deal with it. Once I hurt myself, but I had to stop because all my friends were upset with me about it and they didn’t want me to do it.”
Summer was messaged recently on Facebook by a little girl who was being bullied on Ask.fm. Summer tried to put things in perspective, telling her that the little girl would never want to put her family through what Summer’s family went through. And though Summer and Alecia agree that ignoring it isn’t realistic, it’s still the only thing Summer could say to her.
“And I told her not to let what the people say get to her, because they’re just jealous of her and they probably get picked on,” Summer says. “What I said was, ‘Please don’t cut yourself, it’s not healthy, find someone or get professional help or someone who will be there for you.’”
Summer says the little girl thanked her for the advice, realistic or not. She wrote, “I will try my best. It is pretty hard though. The hardest part in school is when you get rejected. Getting ignored is the worst feeling ever.”
In a few weeks it will be announced that Jose Baez, the attorney who (in)famously represented Casey Anthony, will defend Katelyn Roman, the 12-year-old who was named as one of Rebecca’s bullies alongside Guadalupe Shaw. Once Baez enters the picture, he will work quickly to argue that Katelyn was only tangentially related to Guadalupe’s bullying and that it was never anything more than an isolated schoolyard fight. The week before Thanksgiving, all charges against Katelyn will be dropped.
Baez will tell reporters that Katelyn is entering counseling for the bullying she’s received since being outed by Sheriff Judd. Baez will threaten to pursue legal action against the Lakeland Sheriff’s Office. A day or so later, charges against Guadalupe will be dropped, as well. Her attorney, DeMichael, will express similar sentiments. Sheriff Grady Judd will tell reporters that the girls getting counseling is the best possible outcome. Tricia Norman will announce her plans to sue the Shaw and Roman families. The family will get through Thanksgiving and then take a group Christmas photo at Rebecca’s grave. But for the rest of the world, the bullying monster that DeMichael alluded to in her office, the spectacle, the attention, will fade.
That is already noticeable on the October afternoon of Rebecca’s birthday. The humid Saturday has turned slightly overcast with dark clouds sliding over the Cemex plant. A memorial for Rebecca lines the fence of the industrial yard, stretching from a weathered orange teddy bear on one end to a black-and-white printout of Rebecca’s Facebook profile picture on the other side of the small front yard. The memorial’s been cleaned up slightly, though the newer flowers are outnumbered by the dead ones and the lines of deflated balloons are still tied into the chain-links. The street is quiet save for the whoosh from the nearby interstate. A handful of cars pass the chain-link fence in front of the silo, slow down, and then speed back up, driving away.
A woman in a wheelchair and small group of teenagers stop at the fence, holding flowers. Heather Swindle and her family live in the area; they didn’t know Rebecca that well. On the day that Rebecca went missing, though, Swindle says she helped search the neighborhood. During her search, she turned the corner onto the road near the Cemex plant and saw the police parked in front of the silo. A Facebook post on her phone later told her that they had found Rebecca’s body.
“I was pretty hysterical because my daughter’s been bullied — and not just once but several times,” Swindle says.
Swindle’s daughter Rhiannon is roughly the same age as Rebecca; they didn’t go to the same school but they had friends in common from church. Heather doesn’t let her daughter have a smartphone. She doesn’t think a 14-year-old is ready for what she calls “a gateway to hell.”
Awkwardly playing with the bracelets on her wrist, Rhiannon says she gets picked on a lot at school. A lot of kids make fun of her because her mother is wheelchair-bound and only has one leg. She doesn’t feel like teachers or really anyone in the community actually care about it.
“They say, ‘It’s a part of life, it’s a part of growing up, you just have to deal with it the best you can,’” Swindle says.
And that’s really the root of the problem for parents like Heather Swindle or Tricia Norman. Even as recently as a 10 years ago, you could tell your child to ignore a bully and that could have been feasible. For the most part there was a stopgap between a child’s life at school and a child’s life at home. Now, thanks to mobile devices and the ubiquity of social media, that stopgap is gone, and the “gateway to hell” can literally become just that. One bully can turn into 10, can turn into 100 bullies, in a matter of an instant once the wave of attention crests.
We hear about the roving invisible mob on the other side of the screen, and they know that children can just as easily join it as they can become the targets of it. And we hear on an almost daily basis about children being swarmed by bullies and trolls online, and then we step back and talk about how different things are now only to go and dole out the same advice we always have: Ignore it.
As Rhiannon places a doll against the fence and puts a few flowers into a little vase, a car pulls up and an older couple gets out. The man stands, leaning on the car, and starts chatting with Heather about how sad it was when he heard about Rebecca. He mentions how carried away the kids can get with that online stuff. He didn’t know Rebecca — they were just passing through, he says, and they were hoping he’d maybe see Tricia so he could let her know his prayers were with her.
“My wife just wanted to see where it was,” he says with a shake of his head in the direction of the cement silo. They stay for a few minutes, staring at the dead flowers and weathered photographs of the little girl tied into the fence, before they get back in the car and drive off toward the highway.
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