MIAMI — The clues were buried in her bedroom. Before leaving for school Monday, Rebecca Ann Sedwick had hidden her school books under some clothes and left her cellphone behind, a rare lapse for a 12-year-old girl.
Inside her phone’s virtual world, she had changed her user name on Kik Messenger, a cellphone application, to “That Dead Girl” and delivered a message to two friends, saying goodbye forever. Then she climbed a platform at an abandoned cement plant near her home in the Central Florida city of Lakeland, climbed a tower and leapt to her death, the Polk County sheriff said.
In jumping, Rebecca became one of the youngest members of a growing list of children and teenagers apparently driven to suicide, at least in part, after being maligned, threatened and taunted online, mostly through a new collection of texting and photo-sharing cellphone applications.
Her suicide raises new questions about the popularity of these applications and websites among children, and the ability of parents to keep up with their children’s online relationships.
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For nearly a year, as many as 15 girls ganged up on Rebecca and picked on her, authorities say, bombarding her with online messages such as “You should die” and “Why don’t you go kill yourself.”
Authorities have seized computers and cellphones from some of the girls while deciding whether to bring charges in what appeared to be the nation’s latest deadly cyberbullying case.
The bullying started over a “boyfriend issue” last year at Crystal Lake Middle School, Sheriff Grady Judd said. He gave no details.
Police said Rebecca was suspended at one point for fighting with a girl who used to be her friend.
Rebecca had been “absolutely terrorized” by the other girls, Judd said. He said detectives found some of her diaries at her home, and she wrote of how depressed she was about the situation. “Her writings would break your heart,” he said.
The case has illustrated, once more, the ways in which youngsters are using the Internet to torment others. “There is a lot of digital drama. Middle-school kids are horrible to each other, especially girls,” said Perry Aftab, a lawyer and expert on cyberbullying.
Florida passed a law this year making it easier to bring felony charges in online bullying cases, but it leaves punishment to schools, not police. Legal experts said it is difficult to bring charges against someone accused of driving a person to suicide.
“We’ve had so many suicides that are related to digital harassment. But we also have free-speech laws in this country,” Aftab said.
Along with her grief, Rebecca’s mother, Tricia Norman, faces the frustration of wondering what else she could have done. She complained to school officials for several months last year about the bullying, and when little changed, she pulled Rebecca out of school and taught her at home. She closed down her daughter’s Facebook page and took her cellphone away. She changed her number.
Rebecca was so distraught in December that she began to cut herself, so her mother had her hospitalized and got her counseling. As best she could, Norman said, she kept tabs on Rebecca’s social-media footprint.
This fall, Rebecca started at a new school, Lawton Chiles Middle Academy, and loved it, Judd said. “She put on a perfect, happy face. She never told me,” Norman, told The Lakeland Ledger. “I never had a clue. I mean, she told me last year when she was being bullied, but not this year, and I have no idea why.”
Unknown to her mother, however, Rebecca had recently signed on to new applications — ask.fm, Kik and Voxer — which kick-started the messaging and bullying once again.
“I had never even heard of them; I did go through her phone but didn’t even know,” said Norman, 42, who works in customer service.
After Rebecca’s suicide, police found search queries such as “what is overweight for a 13-year-old girl,” “how to get blades out of razors” and “how many over-the-counter drugs do you take to die.” One of her screen savers also showed her head resting on a railroad track.
In hindsight, Norman wonders whether Rebecca kept her distress from her family because she feared her mother might take away her cellphone again.
“Maybe she thought she could handle it on her own,” Norman said.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.