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Girl's suicide points to rise in apps used by cyberbullies

By Lizette Alvarez

New York Times

LAST UPDATED: 09:25 a.m. HST, Sep 14, 2013

MIAMI » The clues were buried in her bedroom. Before leaving for school on Monday morning, Rebecca Ann Sedwick had hidden her school books under a pile of clothes and left her cellphone behind, a rare lapse for a 12-year-old girl.

Inside her phone's virtual world, she had changed her user name on Kik Messenger, a cellphone application, to "That Dead Girl" and delivered a message to two friends, saying goodbye forever. Then she climbed a platform at an abandoned cement plant near her home in the Central Florida city of Lakeland and leaped to the ground, the Polk County sheriff said.

In jumping, Rebecca became one of the youngest members of a growing list of children and teenagers apparently driven to suicide, at least in part, after being maligned, threatened and taunted online, mostly through a new collection of texting and photo-sharing cellphone applications. Her suicide raises new questions about the proliferation and popularity of these applications and websites among children and the ability of parents to keep up with their children's online relationships.

For more than a year, Rebecca, pretty and smart, was cyberbullied by a coterie of 15 middle-school children who urged her to kill herself, her mother said. The Polk County sheriff's office is investigating the role of cyberbullying in the suicide and considering filing charges against the middle-school students who apparently barraged Rebecca with hostile text messages. Florida passed a law this year making it easier to bring felony charges in online bullying cases.

Rebecca was "absolutely terrorized on social media," Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County said at a news conference this week.

Along with her grief, Rebecca's mother, Tricia Norman, faces the frustration of wondering what else she could have done. She complained to school officials for several months about the bullying, and when little changed, she pulled Rebecca out of school. She closed down her daughter's Facebook page and took her cellphone away. She changed her number. Rebecca was so distraught in December that she began to cut herself, so her mother had her hospitalized and got her counseling. As best she could, Norman said, she kept tabs on Rebecca's social media footprint.

It all seemed to be working, she said. Rebecca appeared content at her new school as a seventh-grader. She was gearing up to audition for chorus and was considering slipping into her cheerleading uniform once again. But unknown to her mother, Rebecca had recently signed on to new applications -- ask.fm, and Kik and Voxer -- which kick-started the messaging and bullying once again.

"I had never even heard of them; I did go through her phone but didn't even know," said Norman, 42, who works in customer service. "I had no reason to even think that anything was going on. She was laughing and joking."

Judd said Rebecca had been using these messaging applications to send and receive texts and photographs. His office showed Norman the messages and photos, including one of Rebecca with razor blades on her arms and cuts on her body. The texts were full of hate, her mother said: "Why are you still alive?" "You're ugly."

One said, "Can u die please?" To which Rebecca responded, with a flash of resilience, "Nope but I can live."

Her family said the bullying began with a dispute over a boy Rebecca dated for a while. But Rebecca had stopped seeing him, they said.

Rebecca was not nearly as resilient as she was letting on. Not long before her death, she had clicked on questions online that explored suicide. "How many Advil do you have to take to die?"

In hindsight, Norman wonders whether Rebecca kept her distress from her family because she feared her mother might take away her cellphone again.

"Maybe she thought she could handle it on her own," Norman said.

It is impossible to be certain what role the online abuse may have played in her death. But cyberbullying experts said cellphone messaging applications are proliferating so quickly that it is increasingly difficult for parents to keep pace with their children's complex digital lives.

"It's a whole new culture, and the thing is that as adults, we don't know anything about it because it's changing every single day," said Denise Marzullo, the chief executive of Mental Health America of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville, who works with the schools there on bullying issues.

No sooner has a parent deciphered Facebook or Twitter or Instagram than his or her children have migrated to the latest frontier. "It's all of these small ones where all this is happening," Marzullo said.

In Britain, a number of suicides by young people have been linked to ask.fm, and online petitions have been started there and here to make the site more responsive to bullying. The company ultimately responded this year by introducing an easy-to-see button to report bullying and saying it would hire more moderators.

"You hear about this all the time," Norman said of cyberbullying. "I never, ever thought it would happen to me or my daughter."

Questions have also been raised about whether Rebecca's old school, Crystal Lake Middle School, did enough last year to help stop the bullying; some of it, including pushing and hitting, took place on school grounds. The same students also appear to be involved in sending out the hate-filled online messages away from school, something schools also can address.

Nancy Woolcock, the assistant superintendent in charge of anti-bullying programs for Polk County Schools, said the school received one bullying complaint from Rebecca and her mother in December about traditional bullying, not cyberbullying. After law enforcement investigated, Rebecca's class schedule was changed. Woolcock said the school also has an extensive anti-bullying campaign and takes reports seriously.

But Norman said the school should have done more. Officials told her that Rebecca would receive an escort as she switched classes, but that did not happen, she said.

Rebecca never boarded her school bus on Monday morning. She made her way to the abandoned Cemex plant about 10 minutes away from her modest mobile home; the plant was a place she had used as a getaway a few times when she wanted to vanish. Somehow, she got past the high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, which is now a memorial, with teddy bears, candles and balloons. She climbed a tower and then jumped.

"Don't ignore your kids," Norman said, "even if they seem fine."

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ehukai123 wrote:
These kinds of stories break my heart. Our children are our most precious commodity. I wish i could have helped her.
on September 14,2013 | 09:56AM
Anonymous wrote:
Many bullies will regret their actions years later. By then, their victims are dead or have been suffering all those years.
on September 14,2013 | 11:20AM
BoneDry wrote:
the first part of your statement is rarely true, the second part usually is.
on September 15,2013 | 07:04AM
cojef wrote:
Cyber-bullying is enhanced by cellphone addiction, perhaps a new phenomenon. Young people toady lack interpersonal skills as all the nuances of personal contact has been eliminated by the cellphone. This manifest itself into being insensitive and less caring and thus bullying and cyberbullying emerge and becomes a problem. Sad that this young lady became a victim of such bullying.
on September 14,2013 | 11:21AM
kelbells34 wrote:
I wonder if the bullies are happy of their accomplishment...They got what they wanted...right? Times are changing and laws should change...There should be a 4th Degree Murder, suicide provoked by bullying/cyber-bullying. The proof is there. They should be blacklisted from phone/internet companies and face prison time.
on September 14,2013 | 11:58AM
HD36 wrote:
Solution: Throw away their cell phones and cancel the service. When they become 18 they'll realize you did them a favor and your retirement account will be bigger.
on September 14,2013 | 12:16PM
mookane wrote:
These so called bullies just need a ole fashion butt whooping!! Instead of suicide, these kids need to fight back and fight back hard !! Eye for an eye type of fight ! And then some ! Until these bullies / punks curl up in corner and whine ! Instead of suicide, start bullying the bullies ! It's open season on bullies kids ! Suicide is not an option kids !!
on September 14,2013 | 12:30PM
Rainbowgran wrote:
These bullies should be held accountable for their actions. No action on the part of authorities and parents ot the bullies increases bullying cause they believe they can get away with it as so many get away with doing negative things in our society but are not given any consequence for it and if they are given such it is not severe enough. Whatever happened to a sense of morality and remembering the divinity in each one of us??? Where has all this hatred been bred??? Amongst peers & family??? It has to come from somewhere. Believe it is unconscionable that there are actually internet sites that do nothing to protect the young as they are learning and growing. Their non-monitoring or not teaching their users how to handle this cyberbullying I repeat is unconscionable!!!
on September 14,2013 | 12:32PM
nodaddynotthebelt wrote:
There is so many things wrong with this tragic situation from the way officials handled it to the way parents raised their bully children. I suspect that the bullies were raised by bullies as many learn to become bullies. On a side note, why do parents purchase data plans for their children? That is just asking for trouble like this. 12 year old children should not have access to such a feature as parents have enough trouble monitoring their children's use of the home computer.
on September 14,2013 | 03:15PM
honolulugal wrote:
"Her family said the bullying began with a dispute over a boy Rebecca dated for a while. But Rebecca had stopped seeing him, they said" Oh, my God. What is a 12-year-old doing dating! And her family knew this???
on September 14,2013 | 07:00PM
808warriorfan wrote:
HOW'S ABOUT WE TRY HOLDING THE PARENTS OF THESE BULLIES RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS.....You want to bring a kid into this world how about being accountable and responsible for the actions. This is just a sign of how these bullies are raised..."OH MY CHILD WOULD NEVER DO A THING LIKE THAT"...If your sorry back side would have to spend some time in jail because of what you kid does or did hopefully you'll think more that twice !!!!!
on September 14,2013 | 08:00PM
kalaoa wrote:
cyber bullies are jerks and don't have their own lives, or rather have such shallow existences that they need to try to make others feel down their level. Parents of these useless should be given credit for their kids being just like them.
on September 14,2013 | 08:14PM
Nocturnal wrote:
The parents of the bullies should be charged with felonies. Also the school system has to do a better job. The part where it says little was done is ALL too common. I know first hand growing up, they didn't do jack squat for me. That's why I used my fists, scrap with everybody. Every time I got into trouble they'd say, "you can't use your fists, ever." Well why don't you do something about the bullying then? It's all a ploy to take the least amount of blame or turn it around and blame it on you. To me, fighting solved everything. Once I fought back, the bullying stopped, kinda funny how that works.
on September 15,2013 | 01:12AM
Nocturnal wrote:
Just fight back. Fight fire with fire. Put your kids in Gracie Jiu JItsu! They teach a gentle art. Doesn't need to be submissions. It can be the teaching of how to subdue an opponent, how to hold them until a teacher can get there to see that the person is being physical with you. You can learn to have a high self confidence. Believe me. My son used to get bullied by kids much older than him, luckily enough he was able to make friends with kids even older than the bullies who they respected a lot and in the end the big boys told the young boys to cut that stuff out. But my son also takes Gracie Jiu Jitsu and is learning week by week how to properly defend himself. My friend Mark Kurano told me best, "teach your son how to fight." He was right. It helps, it works, believe me I've been there.
on September 15,2013 | 01:27AM
mikethenovice wrote:
There is a suicide in America every 18 seconds. Many of them hold their feeling inside of them. We must not judge them otherwise they will not speak and keep those feelings locked up inside. We should not be a shame of asking for help when our thoughts need a reassuring answer.
on September 15,2013 | 03:37AM
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