TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd says the death of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick of Lakeland, who killed herself following a year of relentless bullying, offers an opportunity to devise a better way to handle such cases.
Sheriff Judd says he is talking with state lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott about developing legislation that would create a civil process to help schools deal with bullies.
He envisions a civil process that would allow schools to confiscate a student's cell phone or electronic device and not return it until the bully completes an anger-management course or attends, what he calls, "anti-bully school."
Sheriff Judd said he does not want police to get involved in early-stage bullying.
"I can tell you this: the first line of defense is parents. Parents need to pay attention. They need to quit being their child's best friend and be their child's best parent. That's what they need to do. So it starts at home," Judd said.
Sheriff Judd says kids should not face criminal penalties for bullying, but they should be sent through a civil process or "organized intervention" to try to stop that behavior.
"What I would like to see is a civil process and we'll have to think through this together whereby a school system can say, 'I understand you're bullying and you've used this device. OK, we've got this anger management school, we've got this anti-bully school, and by the way, we get to hold your device until you've completed the school.'"
Rebecca Sedwick faced persistent and aggressive bullying at school and on the Internet. Polk County schools separated her from the bullies, suspended some of them and worked with police on the problem.
Schools leaders even had a new state cyberbullying law that was designed to try to help students like Rebecca Sedwick. It gave schools more authority to handle online bullying that happened off campus.
But Sedwick climbed a silo and jumped to her death. Her family blames the bullying for her death.
Sheriff Judd sees another issue.
"There was one common denominator. Rebecca's mother didn't take her cell phone or her electronic device away and you certainly understand that. Rebecca is the victim here and she certainly should have the opportunity to talk to her friends. Unfortunately, the bullies found her.
"In this particular event with Rebecca, the school created interventions. They successfully, between the school and Rebecca's mother, separated her physically from the bullies. But the technology is what put them back together," Judd said.
Polk County detectives arrested a 14-year-old girl and a 12-year-old girl in connection with the Rebecca Sedwick case. They are charged with felony aggravated stalking because, Judd says, it went far beyond bullying.
He hopes the Florida Legislature will step up with more comprehensive bullying legislation.
"There's an opportunity here to recognize that if we stop bullying early, we'll save lives of children, but more importantly, we may calm down the angst and anxiety that we see that leads to other crimes that don't even get attributed back to bullying."
First Coast News