Amid concern over cyber-bullying, one mother fights for tough new laws

Tricia Norman to file wrongful death suit after criminal charges against her daughter's alleged bullies were dropped

Tricia Norman and her attorney Matt Morgan announce at a press conference that they plan on filing a civil suit and pushing for an anti-bullying law.
AP Photo/The Ledger, Rick Runion

Tricia Norman, the mother of a Florida girl who committed suicide after months of allegedly being bullied on the Internet by classmates, announced this week that she plans to file a civil suit and push for state and federal lawmakers to enact anti-bullying legislation.

"I'm very angry with the individuals I believe are responsible for my daughter's death," Norman said. "I keep waiting for an apology I now know will never come."

Twelve-year-old Rebecca Sedwick leaped to her death from an abandoned concrete plant in September after being bullied in school and online for more than a year, her family says. 

The announcement on Monday came one week after authorities dropped aggravated stalking charges against a 14-year-old girl and a 13-year-old girl, who were accused of bullying Sedwick.

The prosecutor cited insufficient evidence as the reason.

The 13-year-old girl, who appeared on NBC's Today show with her parents, said she did nothing wrong. Her remarks came a day after the charges against her were dropped. She said the incident taught her that it is important to stand up to bullying.

Norman's attorney, Matt Morgan, told Al Jazeera that the state dropped the charges because of the girls ages.

"The prosecutor simply recognized that pursuing a felony case against these minors was not the best course of action," Morgan said.

The incident is now being handled by the juvenile court, where, Morgan said, "it should have been all along."

Morgan said that his firm will continue its investigation, adding that the civil suit is being filed in "Rebecca's honor."

"We believe that there are several individuals who tormented Rebecca to death, and we're intent on bringing a claim against those individuals," he said.

It remains unclear who Sedwick's family will file suit against. Morgan told Al Jazeera that his firm has not ruled out any potential defendants. 

As to whether he thinks the school bears some responsibility for Sedwick's death, Morgan said that based on an initial inspection, "more could have been done to protect Rebecca."

"We don't think that proper safeguards were put in place to ensure that the bullying ended in an appropriate time frame," he told Al Jazeera.

The alleged bullying of Sedwick comes as bullying among children and teens has received increasing attention. An estimated 2.2 million students experienced cyber-bullying in 2011, up from about 1.5 million in 2009, reports the Cyberbullying Research Center.

Anti-bullying legislation

About half (49 percent) of young people ages 14 through 24 in the U.S. said they have had at least one encounter with some kind of online harassment, according to a recent AP/MTV poll. Perhaps even more alarming, only 44 percent of all young people surveyed said they would intervene if they witnessed someone using discriminatory language or images on social media.

Morgan said he is currently working with Congress to enact the first ever federal anti-bullying law.

"This law will mandate that schools have certain policies and procedures in place related to bullying. It is in response to the current climate of bullying in our school systems and society at large."

Titled the Safe School Improvement Act of 2013, the law would require school districts to implement a comprehensive anti-bullying policy and require states to include bullying and harassment data in statewide needs assessments. The information collected would then be used to measure the scope of the problem.

"If a school is found to be noncompliant with the policies set forth by this federal bill, then their funding would be placed in jeopardy," Morgan said.

The bill has received the backing of several organizations including the American Library Association, National PTA, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the American Federation of Teachers.

On a state level, Morgan is working with local officials to pass "Rebecca's Law."

Morgan said the statute was introduced because Florida's current anti-bullying statute does not go far enough.

"It fails to punish bullies themselves and only goes after schools. We want an addendum to the current law that addresses criminal punishment for the act of bullying."

He told Al Jazeera that a press conference with sponsors of the law is planned soon, but added that efforts to formulate the punishment are still in their infancy.

The statute would incorporate something similar to a three-strike rule, according to Morgan.

"The first strike would require the minor to attend counseling. The second strike compels the minor to attend counseling and perform community service. The third strike could result in juvenile detention."

Combating cyber-bullying

The increasing prevelance of bullying — and cyber-bullying in particular — is due in part to the number of teens with access to mobile devices. More than 80 percent of teens use a cell phone regularly, making it the most common medium for cyber bullying, according to nonprofit group Do Something.

Norman, who says she lodged numerous complaints with her daughter's school, allegedly found hateful texts in her daughter's phone and self-inflicted cuts on Sedwick's arms and legs, according to Morgan. Messages sent to the 12-year-old include "Drink bleach and die," "Why are you still alive?" and "Go kill yourself."  

Summer Howard, Sedwick's sister, told South Florida's The Ledger that after Sedwick was transferred to a different school, her family thought the bullying had stopped. "We all thought she was fine now. No one had known."

According to the Cyber Research Center, only 1 in 10 victims of cyber-bullying informs an adult.

Public schools have the authority to discipline students for cyber-bullying if it substantially disrupts the learning environment or infringes on the rights of other students, according to Justin Patchin, the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

"The issue schools struggle with is at what point does conduct become a substantial disruption or an interference of another student's rights," Patchin told Al Jazeera. "If a student is being cyber-bullied to the point where they don't feel safe coming into school and can't concentrate on learning, then clearly the school has the authority to take action."

To combat cyber-bullying, some school districts have begun hiring private firms to monitor students' online activities. In Southern California for example, the Glendale Unified School District hired Geo Listening, a social network monitoring service, to scour the online communications of about 14,000 students.

Chris Frydrych, the firm's founder and CEO, told the Los Angeles Times that he expects to be monitoring about 3,000 schools worldwide by the end of the year.

Critics of the program worry that the constant monitoring may raise privacy concerns and have a chilling effect on students' free speech.

"From a teen's perspective, it could cause further humiliation or embarrassment to know that a principal (and the private firm) now know about some painful event in his or her life. For this very reason, the affirmative and directed snooping on students outside of school might well cross a line," Anita Ramasastry, a law professor at University of Washington School of Law wrote in September.

But Morgan contends that the "well-being of the student body trumps any potential privacy implications that would accompany this type of surveillance."

Aside from the programs legal implications, Patchin said that whether the program is wise, justifiable or even a good use of resources is another question.

"If a school is effective at developing safe learning environments, then we would not need to hire companies to monitor online behavior. A strong community polices itself and shouldn’t require outside intervention."

He added, "It is clear that in Rebecca's situation, a lot of people failed. The school, the parents and law enforcement, which didn't get involved until it was too late."

Rebecca would have celebrated her 13th birthday on Saturday. Her mother posted a birthday message to her on Facebook: "I did my very best to protect you and now I feel like I failed that very important job that God gave me because He took you from me way too soon."

"I am doing my very best to make sure that other parents are made aware of how serious of a problem bullying is and I hope you are proud of me and satisfied with my progress," Norman wrote.

Days after her daughter's death, Norman launched a Facebook campaign against bullying called Rebecca Sedwick Against Bullying. The inspiration for the campaign came from her daughter's journal which read, "every day more and more kids kill themselves because of bullying. How many lives have to be lost until people realize words do matter?"

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