Barbara Shelly

The terrible fallout from teenage cruelty

Rebecca Ann Sedwick, 12, was found dead at a cement plant near her home in Lakeland, Florida, after reportedly being cyberbullied. (Photo from the Polk County Sheriff's Office/MCT)
Rebecca Ann Sedwick, 12, was found dead at a cement plant near her home in Lakeland, Florida, after reportedly being cyberbullied. (Photo from the Polk County Sheriff's Office/MCT) MCT

Here in Missouri, we are consumed with the Maryville teen sex case.

In that small city, charges against two high school athletes following a teen sex incident touched off a barrage of hatred — directed at the then-14-year-old victim and her family. Daisy Coleman’s mother lost her job as a veterinarian. Her family had to leave town. Daisy’s high school years have been lost to therapy, cutting episodes and suicide attempts.

Another bullying episode is in the news this week. In Florida, the Polk County sheriff arrested two teenage girls. They are accused of tormenting a seventh-grader for a year before the girl, Rebecca Ann Sedwick, jumped to her death from an abandoned cement silo.

If Sheriff Grady Judd is right, the online invective didn’t end with Rebecca’s death. At a news conference, he said he arrested the girls after one of them announced on her Facebook page that, “Yes, I bullied Rebecca and she killed herself but IDGAF.” In cyber shorthand, that would be “I don’t give a....” You can fill in the blank.

The girl’s parents insist a hacker wrote the comment. The sheriff says he’s certain the girl is responsible, and she has left a long trail of Internet harassment.

A disturbing coda to the Florida story: When news stations aired a photo of the accused girl’s Facebook page, the cold-blooded comment had elicited 31 “likes.”

These are extreme cases. Much more common, thankfully, are stories of teenagers who volunteer, do good things and stand up for each other. And a certain percentage of kids have always been mean. We just didn’t hear about it so much before the Internet took bullying to a new level.

But still. Reports like these are enough to chill a parent’s blood.

In the Maryville case, one detail that has been reported is especially shocking to me.

It’s not that a group of high school boys were accused of inviting two younger girls to party, getting one of them plastered with hard liquor, and that sexual intercourse allegedly took place. That story is as old as teenagers and alcohol and bad decisions. It’s not even that one of the boys was accused of filming his 17-year-old friend having sex with a 14-year-old girl. That is abhorrent, but the malicious use of cellphone cameras is pervasive among young users, and some older ones, too.

The most shocking element of the story is what the boys did when they took the girls back to Daisy Coleman’s house around 2 a.m. One girl went into the house. Daisy was too incapacitated to walk. So the boys, according to police, left her in her front yard, dressed only in sweatpants and a T-shirt, in freezing temperatures.

That, like the Facebook post in Florida, speaks to an utter absence of caring, remorse or even a fear of consequences.

Except there have been consequences. Both the Missouri and Florida incidents have erupted into full-blown Internet scandals, and you can be sure that life for all concerned is absolute hell.

Parents, there has to be a way to head off trouble like this. It’s not just about monitoring kids’ whereabouts and Internet use, although that is certainly part of it.

But it’s also about getting kids away from their cliques and computers and devices and immersing them in the real world, where kindness is valued more than snark and indifference, and where people understand we all need each other.

It’s about letting kids know that their talents in athletics or other pursuits don’t make them special or entitle them to treat other people badly.

It’s about getting young people to respect themselves and each other.

In Maryville, much of the uproar has been about the prosecutor’s decision to drop charges of sexual assault and sexual exploitation. That decision has now been reversed; a special prosecutor has been requested. And that’s good. But by the time an incident like this gets into court, it is always too late.