Police Files Raise Questions About FL Sheriff’s Cyberbullying Case

When Polk County, Fl., Sheriff Grady Judd arrested two juvenile girls last year on aggravated stalking charges, he said the girls drove 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick to commit suicide through relentless online bullying. “Rebecca was absolutely terrorized on social media,” Judd said, asserting that up to 15 students may have been involved. The Christian Science Monitor says the case, seemingly an egregious example of another instance in which teenage bullying was to blame for a suicide, drew international media attention and reignited a conversation about the dangers of cyberbullying.

A month after charges were filed, they were dropped because of insufficient evidence. Now, reviews of police files paint a far more complex picture of what Rebecca was dealing with, including family problems with her mother, stepfather, and father; a history of self-cutting, and a breakup with an Internet boyfriend just before her suicide. The reviews show little evidence of the online bullying Judd said was so pervasive. Experts call the case a cautionary tale of too quickly drawing assumptions along the accepted story line that the public and news media look for: blaming suicide on bullying. “The more I look at these files, the more livid I am at this sheriff,” says Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, which works to combat cyberbullying. Judd's office stands by its decision, and says one suspect is getting help through diversionary programs offered by a prosecutor in exchange for her charges being dropped, and the other suspect is in voluntary counseling.

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