What apparently caused the rift between the girls was nothing new, played out as adolescent drama in countless classrooms, school halls, and rumor mills for generations: Two girls had a falling out over a boy who had once “dated” one but was now the boyfriend of the other (“dated” in parentheses because one of the girls in question was 12, the other 14, so how much real “dating” went on? True enough, but at that age emotions run hot and crushes deep). Feelings were hurt, words exchanged, and classmates and friends took up sides with most, it seemed, landing on that of the older and current girlfriend. And then the relentless taunting of the younger girl began in earnest and continued for more than a year until finally, unable to take any more from her chief tormentor and as many as fifteen other girls – including her onetime best friend – Rebecca Sedwick climbed to the top of a silo at an abandoned concrete plant and threw herself to her death.
Even the tragedy of her suicide, which appeared to stem directly from the abuse heaped upon her, is hardly a new response to the age-old pain of taunting – or, for our purposes here, bullying – as the instances of both attempted and completed suicides of children and young adults who have faced serious and ongoing harassment by peers do seem to be on the rise. What is relatively new were the means by which most of the bullying took place, via online messages directed at and about her by more than a dozen girls, its severity and relentlessness, and that the bullying led Polk County, FL Sheriff Grady Judd to arrest Rebecca’s 14 year old romantic rival and her 12 year old former best friend on felony charges of aggravated stalking (the charges have since been dropped by prosecutors). Whether Sheriff Judd’s decision to arrest the two is one I agree with, I cannot say; I’m unfamiliar with both the entirety of the facts in this case and how they were applied to fit the aggravated stalking charge under which Polk County charged them. What I do know is the move was remarkable in applying a criminal justice solution to what has traditionally been considered primarily a civil problem under the purview of the schools and parents.
Are law enforcement solutions to bullying a coming trend?
Bullying is one of those current hot topics receiving a great deal of attention in the press and, perhaps largely because of this current high profile, even among various politicians looking to get out ahead of the issue (or at least appear responsive to such high-profile cases as this one and others, or to the complaints of parents whose children are bullied and seeking help). While laws to combat bullying in schools now exist in almost all states (Montana is the lone exception), they almost invariably mandate actions to be taken within schools to establish safety, respond to instances of bullying, and define services to be provided and to whom. They generally lack specific criminal sanctions against perpetrators, although schools and their administrators are held accountable for the environment they create and maintain.
There is a small but growing movement among some local jurisdictions to impose criminal sanctions on either bullies and/or their parents as real and anecdotal evidence of bullying and its consequences continues to amass. Recent passed and proposed anti-bullying legislation in cities such as Kansas City, MO, Ridgefield, NJ, Monona, WI, and Benton Harbor, MI make bullying a quasi-criminal offense under local ordinances, and responsibility for its enforcement on their police departments. This is a movement likely to only gain steam. The question we should consider is whether this should be considered a welcome trend or a well-meaning, but flawed, legislative overreach.
Difficulties with criminalizing “bullying”