Police File On Student ‘Bullied Into Committing Suicide’ Strangely Lacking In Evidence Of Bullying

CNN recently published a follow up story dealing with the circumstances surrounding the suicide of Rebecca Sedwick, a 12-year-old who leapt to her death reportedly due to intense bullying — and it appears the whole “bullying” part is almost entirely absent.

One of the more unexpected outcomes of Sedwick’s suicide was the arrest of two students in connection with her death. (Though not wholly without precedent…) According to Sheriff Grady Judd, the two suspects posted messages both before and after Sedwick’s death that indicated they were involved in her bullying. The older of the two suspects (one was 14 and the other 12) posted the following on Facebook after Sedwick took her own life.

Yes ik [I know] I bullied Rebecca nd she killed her self but IDGAF [I don’t give a (expletive)].

Sheriff Judd took it upon himself to have these two arrested, setting a somewhat dangerous precedent in his county that people could be held criminally responsible for someone else’s voluntary action. He seemed to approach this as a crusade against the cruelty of youth, one in which laws and common sense could be overturned in order to right wrongs.

Judd, as it turns out, has had plenty of crusades in his past. One of his more notable efforts involved sending deputies 1,900 miles away to arrest a suspected pedophile. Judd’s moral compass, however, skews a bit further north than most, which makes his stance on issues like pornography and bullying somewhat suspect.

In 2007, commenting on a case in which he had arrested a man who was running a porn site out of his home in Polk, [Judd] said: “No normal person could even imagine what’s depicted in those videos and in those photographs.” A sexual behavior expert from the University of Central Florida said in a motion in the man’s court file that it was run-of-the-mill erotica available anywhere on the Internet to anyone.

Judd also seldom performs his work without an audience. One colleague of his memorably stated that the most dangerous place to be is “between Judd and a camera.” This calls into question Judd’s judgement as well, which seems to be at least as populist-oriented as it is crime-oriented.

Not long after Judd’s high-profile arrest of two students, the charges were dropped by the State District Attorney. Judd applied spin to his prized arrests being cut loose, claiming all he wanted to do was, “bring this conduct to the proper authorities.” Considering Judd is one of the “proper authorities,” one wonders what endgame he envisioned. It certainly couldn’t have been his righteous crusade being found legally untenable by the state.

Another crusader, this time a lawyer, decided Sedwick’s death called for a new law — one that targeted parents for not policing their children’s online behavior. According to his extrapolations, the parents should be held responsible for an unrelated person’s suicide, something even further removed than Judd’s assertion that the two students should be held criminally responsible for Sedwick’s suicide. (Of course, Judd also thought the parents should be punished somehow, and even hauled in one of the parents for unrelated abuse/neglect charges.)

By the time this had all been sorted out, rumors were beginning to surface that Sedwick’s home life wasn’t quite the placid safehouse her grieving mother had portrayed it as.

More than a year before her death, Sedwick had been battling depression resulting from her deteriorating relationship with her father, according to intake reports from a counselor that are included in the police file. She also complained about fights between her mother and stepfather. The file, which has been reviewed by CNN, says she cut herself on a few occasions, had suicidal ideations and had been committed for psychiatric evaluation for two days.

In November 2012, she accused her mother of abusing her and then took back the accusation, saying she was pushed to lie by classmates who forced her off campus and told her they wouldn’t let her return home unless she lied to an officer. Her mother denied abusing Sedwick but said she slapped the girl’s face once during an argument about Sedwick being too young to date.

Sometime before her death, Sedwick’s relationship with an online boyfriend came to an end, according to the documents. Family conflict, in addition to bullying from girls at school, weighed on her.

What wasn’t found in the files, however, was much evidence that Sedwick was unrelentingly bullied.

“I don’t think I was prepared for the abysmal lack … of any evidence of bullying for the seven months prior to her suicide,” said Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, a group that focuses on combating cyberbullying, and author of a handful of books including “Positive Relations @ School (& Elsewhere).”

Willard says this case is like many others: parents and authorities leaping to the wrong conclusions in the aftermath of a tragedy. The haste to pin a suicide on bullying buried the rest of Sedwick’s background. This is somewhat understandable, given the circumstances. In the wake of a tragedy, no one wants to point the finger at the parents as possibly being partially responsible for their own child’s death.

But if these teens were somehow responsible for Sedwick’s suicide, then why wouldn’t anyone go after the other factors, all of which were included in the police file? Why didn’t someone haul in the ex-boyfriend? Surely he’s as “culpable” as anyone.

No one would think to haul in anyone else (parents, ex-boyfriend) who contributed to Sedwick’s unhappiness, but it was considered perfectly OK to haul in two teens and attempt to press criminal charges, even when faced with a dearth of evidence. But that’s exactly how ridiculous Judd’s efforts were.

Now that Judd has apparently seen this lack of evidence for the first time, he’s backpedaling quickly.

“We never said that bullying was the only reason Rebecca committed suicide,” Judd told The Associated Press. “But what the bullies did is that they continued to stack bricks on an already overloaded wagon till finally, it broke.”

But these “bricks” could have been “stacked” in any order. Judd simply made the most popular move, one that brought in the most unsympathetic suspects. And then he rode his hobby horse hard, until it collapsed under the weight of his misguided convictions.

But there are still those who want to make someone pay. The lawyer for Sedwick’s mother is planning to sue the school district as well as at least one of the two girls Judd arrested. He claims to have evidence that the teens bullied Sedwick and that the school not only knew, but did nothing to stop it.

There is evidence that indicates Sedwick was bullied in the months leading up to her death, but that evidence is scattershot at best. The lack of evidence doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen, but it does suggest that, coupled with other information coming to light, it was hardly the only factor in Sedwick’s decision to end her life.

The point here isn’t to excuse the bullies for their actions. The point is that far too often the instantaneous reaction to tragedies is misguided and myopic, focusing on the least sympathetic protagonists and ignoring anything else that doesn’t fit the narrative that’s easiest to accept. The larger problem is that law enforcement and legislators are especially prone to act on this limited (or willfully ignored) information, and that results in all sorts of questionable actions and terrible laws — things that negatively affect the general public.

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