Cyberbullying arrests raise legal question: Was it a crime?

Published On: Oct 16 2013 08:20:01 PM EDT
Updated On: Oct 17 2013 07:20:39 AM EDT

The arrest of two Polk County girls for allegedly cyberstalking a suicidal classmate has gained widespread media attention, but the legal issues may not be a clear cut as some assume, according to a Local 6 legal analyst.

ORLANDO, Fla. -

The arrest of two Polk County girls for allegedly cyberstalking a suicidal classmate has gained widespread media attention, but the legal issues may not be a clear cut as some assume, according to a Local 6 legal analyst.

[RELATED: 2 arrested in death of bullied Fla. girl]

As Sheriff Grady Judd said Tuesday in announcing the charges, "When a 12-year-old baby jumps off the top of a cement plant for any reason, that's a terrible event. That's a tragic event."

And no one doubts bullying is not a serious problem that can have tragic consequences.

But, still undetermined at this point: Did the two girls Judd arrested actually commit a crime?

To prove the girls committed aggravated stalking, the state will have to prove they caused "substantial emotional distress" to 14-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, who leapt to her death from the cement tower last month after repeated cyber bullying.

But Local 6 legal analyst Luis Calderon said the communications would have to cause such distress in a "reasonable person."

Middle school-aged children are not always "reasonable."

"Children of this age definitely have a thinner skin than older people. So they're a little less resilient in handling this type of communication," Calderon said.

While the communications cited by Sheriff Grady Judd are certainly mean, he did not reveal any that threatened Sedwick with harm.

"There were statements like, 'You should drink bleach and die... I don't like you, nobody likes you,'" Judd said. "'You should go kill yourself.' That's really hurtful to 12- and 13-year-old girls."

But, a judge may be asked to decide, do they reveal an intent to cause "substantial emotional distress" in a "reasonable person?"

For now, the suspects -- Guadalupe Shaw, 14, and Katelyn Roman, 12 -- are charged in juvenile court, which means a judge, not a jury, would decide if they were delinquent.

And, Calderon said, that judge could consider the Sedwick's mental health history, including a commitment to a mental health facility after a prior suicide attempt that her family said was prompted by the bullying.

"Just because this particular person committed suicide, we can't get away from the fact of what else was going on in their lives," Calderon said. "If they have mental health issues? Did they have some other situation going on? Was this the only thing that caused them to act?"

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