Bullying: Looking at the Death of a Florida Pre-Teen and Considering Civil Liability

Adolescence is often a rough time. Along with the many physical changes, there is an increasing pressure to fit in as peers become more and more important. Bullying has been around for ages, but it seems to have become increasingly serious in recent years. Compared to stories we hear today, where bullying can entail 24/7 cruelty in-person and online, even 2004's movie Mean Girls seems quaint. As a Panama City bullying law firm, we work with children and their families (including parents of children who took their own lives to escape the torment) to explore all available civil claims. Depending on the case, appropriate bullying lawsuits may include claims against the bullies, their parents, the school, and any other individuals/groups who turned a blind eye to the cruelty.

12-Year-Old Takes Her Own Life to Escape Bullies' Torment

Rebecca Sedwick was only 12 years old when, as reported by ABC News, she climbed the tower of an abandoned building and jumped. Rebecca died on September 9th following what was at least her second attempt to take her life. Last December, when she was hospitalized after cutting her wrists, she cited bullying as the reason for her actions. Her primary tormentors were two schoolmates, aged 12 and 14 years; one of the bullies had previously been Rebecca's best friend.

The bullying is believed to have started over a boy. They intimidated Rebecca, called her names, and hurt her physically. One of the girls told Rebecca she should "drink bleach and die." Thanks in part to the Internet, harassment continued after Rebecca's mom began homeschooling her and transferred her to a new school. While the two girls were the primary tormentors, the online bullying involved as many as 15 girls.

Police recently arrested the two primary bullies and charged them with stalking before releasing them to their parents' custody. Polk County Sherriff Grady Judd said that the arrests were hastened by a comment made by the 14-year-old on Facebook following Rebecca's death. In the post, the girl said she had bullied Rebecca, knew the girl had committed suicide, but "IDGAF" (believed to mean "I don't give a [expletive]." The girl's parents said her account must have been hacked, but Sheriff Judd said he didn't believe that claim. Police are considering charges against the parents of the bullies. Other news reports have covered the arrest of the step-mother of one of the bullies for child abuse not directly related to the Sedwick case (we hesitate to say "unrelated" given the tendency of abuse to grow from abuse).

A Growing Threat, An Evolving Law, and a Panama City Attorney for Bullying Victims

The ABC article cited an AP review that found approximately a dozen suicides nationwide since October 2010 that involved cyberbullying. Others believe the number is at least twice that figure. Florida law prohibits bullying in school and extends that prohibition to online bullying if it involves school computers or if it "substantially interferes" with the ability of the victim to obtain a public education. The statute also provides an in-depth definition of cyber-bullying, a clear testament to the pervasiveness of the problem.

We believe that bullies and those who permit bullying by turning a blind eye must be held accountable. The degree to which individuals and institutions can be held civilly liable for bullying is a matter in flux. Plaintiffs have won both verdicts and settlements, including via wrongful death and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims. However, other courts have dismissed claims, sometimes citing free speech principles. We will continue to follow the legal developments in Florida and nationwide. We believe civil liability is appropriate in many cases, and we are proud to serve as a law firm for bullying victims in Panama City and throughout Northwest Florida.

If your child has been the victim of severe bullying in Panama City, call us. We will, first of all, listen. Then we will discuss the law and decide what civil claims are appropriate given the facts and the state of the law. While monetary damages cannot undo trauma and certainly cannot bring back a child lost too soon, money can help in a myriad of ways. Further, civil bullying claims help send the message that bullying is not okay, that bullies will be held accountable, and that adults cannot turn a blind eye and dismiss true torment as mere "child's play."

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