Bullying can’t be ignored

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 24, 2013

The last big case my lawyer brother handled before his untimely death in an auto accident involved bullying in his local school system. A young female high school student had been victimized by a male contemporary, or so her parents contended, and because they could get no satisfaction from the school authorities, they turned to Mike.
Mike’s partners thought the matter had merit but would be difficult and drawn out. He agreed but shrugged that off and, as was usual for him, saw a chance to correct an injustice. His determination doubled after his efforts to bring closure to the matter were hamstrung by recalcitrant school officials who failed several times to resolve it — and none too politely at that.
The finely honed sense of outrage that made my brother a strong advocate for those who needed a stronger voice kicked into high gear. The ultimate result was vindication in the form of an expensive settlement by the school system and the parents of the accused. A little common sense and acceptance of responsibility could have saved much.
This all came to mind recently with the news that an incensed Florida sheriff had responded in a far more decisive fashion than those in Mike’s case. The sheriff had taken a rare step by charging two girls, 12 and 14, as contributing to the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick, who had jumped from the top of an abandoned cement plant’s silo.

Rebecca allegedly had been bullied and harassed beyond all reason by the other two. The younger girl once had been Rebecca’s best friend but was convinced by the older girl to physically assault the victim, who didn’t fight back. After Rebecca’s death, the older girl unremorsefully announced on her Facebook page that she had bullied the girl into killing herself. She apparently had considered Sedwick a rival for the attention of a boy.
As a side note, the stepmother of one of the girls accused of bullying, was accused of beating other children. She was arrested Oct. 18 upon discovery via video of a July incident in which she allegedly punched and hit two boys. She was charged with two counts of child abuse with bodily harm and four counts of child neglect, the Associated Press reports.
Bullying has been a fact of life for at least as long as kids have been going to school, at private institutions as well as public. Boarding schools, in England and some in this country, were notorious for it. It was all part of growing up, right? Not if you were on the receiving end of constant harassment — mental and sometimes physical abuse.
All this has been made vastly more incessant and dangerous by the Internet and social networks. Rebecca Sedwick is among the well-publicized victims of viciousness. My daughter, Lisa, experienced it briefly once; a girl with whom she had absolutely no quarrel sent her a nasty, hateful letter full of expletives. Lisa handled it by confronting the girl and telling her in no uncertain terms that she would not tolerate any further attacks.

Thank goodness this was before the online assaults so common now. Though Rebecca’s mother and father moved their daughter to a different school when the bullying intensified, the online attacks continued.
We should hail the willingness of Polk County (Fla.) Sheriff Grady Judd to charge the two girls with aggravated stalking. The younger of the two accused has shown remorse and her parents have been helping in the investigation. She was released to her parents under house arrest. The older girl, who once had urged Rebecca to “drink bleach and die,” was taken into custody.
When parents apparently ignore or make excuses for obvious indications of bullying or other bad behavior from their child, as the older girl’s parents allegedly did, and bad things happen as a result, they should be held accountable as well as their children.
The opportunity to cause harm through our enhanced communications networks requires a new responsibility when it comes to teaching and monitoring our offspring. The tendency to commit abuse is naturally high during adolescence when judgment is always at its lowest. With their smartphones and tablets and computers, it’s easy to go too far.
Sheriff Judd has taken a major stride toward doing something about it. I’m pleased my brother did, too. Failing to act would compound the harm done.
Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.