Bullying, suicide prevention, and bad reporting

suicideprevention 

In September of 2013, a 12-year old girl from Lakeland, Florida went to an abandoned cement factory and jumped to her death. Rebeca Sedwick looked like a beautiful, bright young lady, and this is a tragedy. Most of what you will read about this case places the blame squarely on bullying. I’m afraid that’s a narrow view of this issue.

I’m not here to finger point. I’m here to talk about what I’ve found about a bad situation.

Here’s a generalization of the case. A young lady was “bullied” after dating a young man and then breaking up. The young man started dating someone else, and Rebeca was bullied by this young lady, Guadalupe Shaw, and other people she influenced to bully Rebeca. Guadalupe’s  mother was a nasty person who apparently abused young people and was charged with child abuse as a result of an video clip that was posted on YouTube in which she was punching a kid.

The Sheriff of Polk County, Grady Judd, went out and arrested the two young ladies (14 and 12 years old) accused of doing the bullying. They were later released. You can read the whole story in the links at the end of this post.  It’s a tragic story. My heart goes out to her mother.

There are a whole lot of questions that could be asked about this situation. The girl changed schools, was still being bullied through texts, and apparently, as reported in one story, even mentioned doing harm to herself the morning she took her life.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office said Sedwick had made comments about wanting to hurt herself before leaving for school Monday, but Norman said she thought her daughter’s rough past with bullying was over. (ref)

It’s been a while since I’ve had kids at home, and I know things have changed, but she was 12. That in itself raises a lot of questions about details I’ve read of the story. For now, I’ll leave those to someone else. The bottom line to me is that there’s a whole lot to talk about, but all we’re hearing about is “bullying.”

The media has reported bullying as the root cause of the suicide, as they’ve done in many other cases. Unfortunately, this is an over-simplified narrative perpetrated by the media and law enforcement, and it is a serious disservice to the public and others that may be at risk for suicide.  It is just irresponsible.

On the Stopbullying.gov website, under the Newsroom section designed to give the media guidance on how to report on bullying stories, the following items are listed in the section “Media Guidelines” under the category “What to Avoid.” (ref)

  • Overstating the problem
  • Stating or implying that bullying caused a suicide
  • Oversimplifying issues related to a bullying incident
  • Using under-qualified sources
  • Blaming/criminalizing those who bully
  • Sensationalizing
  • Excluding prevention information and resources

Journalists, bloggers, and other content creators who avoid these problems can offer their audiences accurate, quality coverage while also helping to prevent bullying.

From what I’ve read, law enforcement and the media covered just about every bullet statement on that list.

From the same page, here’s more detailed information on “things to avoid:”

Stating or implying that bullying caused a suicide. The relationship between bullying and suicide is complex. Many media reports take short cuts, presenting bullying as the “cause” or “reason” for a suicide. The facts tell a different story. A thorough investigation usually reveals that the cause of a suicide is complex and multifacted. If bullying is involved, it is one of many factors.

Now, they are seeking “anti-bullying” legislation.  As reported by NBC, Florida’s statute includes “teasing” and “social exclusion.” What? How will that be defined and by who? Who will enforce “social exclusion?” If a girl has a sleep-over, does she have to invite everyone in her class? Grade? School?  Trying to solve a bad problem with bad legislation is a bad idea.

From NBC News on the story:

According to Florida’s statute, bullying is defined as “systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress” and it includes teasing, social exclusion, threat, intimidation, theft, physical harassment and humiliation.

The legislation’s first attempt at combating bullying will be in the schools. According to Morgan, it will not need much, if any, funding.

“Schools need to make sure they have the proper resources to address the epidemic of bullying,” Morgan said. “This campaign [Sedwick’s] mother Tricia Norman has initiated is a campaign of good will for others. I can tell you personally we have received an enormous amount of support for what we are doing.”  (ref)

The above selection quotes the mothers’ attorney, Matt Morgan, saying they need the resources to address the “epidemic of bullying.” Again, under the http://www.stopbullying.gov/ site, “Media Guidelines, what to avoid” gives the following information:

Unfortunately, a majority of bullying stories give an inaccurate picture of the prevalence of the problem. The facts are:

Bullying is not an epidemic. Rates of bullying nationally have not increased. There may be a local increase in bullying or awareness of bullying, but even this statement requires more reliable evidence than a few striking cases. (ref)

Honestly, it just makes me wonder. Do any of these people, from the cops, the lawyers, to the reporters, have any idea what they’re saying? Done any research? Talked to any experts? Do they understand they actually could be making the problem worse?

A young lady commits suicide, and the media, with support from law enforcement and the legal community, report it as if the mere act of bullying caused the situation, when, in fact, there are many factors involved in these situations. Instead of looking for real solutions and providing accurate information to the public, they will try to fix the problem by creating legislation to control the behavior of school children.

I’m against bullies. I would like to prevent our young people from committing suicide.  I’m not a journalist, just a hack with a blog who had a suicide awareness class in the Air Force and questioned what I read. How is it that through reading a story and doing thirty minutes of research, that I could come up with the resources and guidelines for responsible reporting, while reporters don’t, or won’t.

We should spend the time and resources where it will do the most good, not on a witch hunt for adolescent bullies.

References:

http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2014/01/17/22341028-mother-of-bullied-teen-hopes-to-change-floridas-laws?lite

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/11/27/mother-of-bulliedgirlpushesforantibullyinglaw.html

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/florida-mom-teen-accused-bullying-girl-committed-suicide-arrested-child-abuse-charges-authorities-article-1.1490366

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/rebecca-sedwick-pins-suicide-jealousy-article-1.1488356

http://www.theledger.com/article/20130910/news/130919963#gsc.tab=0

Facts on bullying, suicide, and suicide prevention

http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pub/youth_suicide.html

http://www.stopbullying.gov/news/media/index.html

http://reportingonsuicide.org

http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

http://www.afsp.org/

http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml

3 comments on “Bullying, suicide prevention, and bad reporting

  1. Mark Baldini says:

    Ah Tony, this story and the ‘legislation’ it spawned seems parallel to a subject near and dear to my heart, guns and guns violence I believe it is the growth of the ‘nanny’ state, where people have become convinced that the Guvernment (misspelled intentionally to show my disrespect) can pass a law or start an entitlement program to fix any problem, and people don’t have to solve any problems themselves. So the Gubberment (intentional) passes a law and problem solved. There’s your ‘Sign of the Apocalypse’ for this week.
    My son is in 6th grade. From conversations I’ve had with him on this topic, the bullying going on now in his school is a fraction of what went on when I was in 6th grade. There are too many factors to make a direct apples to apples comparison, but the demographics are similar. When I was a kid, EVERYONE was called names, and God help you if your last name ended in ‘ski’ in the Milwaukee area, because you were a Pollock and therefore as dumb as a stump. My son is completely unfamiliar with the concept of name-calling.

  2. whatshupp says:

    I agree Mark, just passing a law doesn’t fix a problem. Interesting perspective about your sons experience, thanks for that.

    • Mark Baldini says:

      Yeah, but the problem is that people think that passing a law DOES fix the problem, therefore problem ‘solved’ and no need to put any more effort into ACTUALLY solving things. It’s the fast, quick ‘solution’ everyone wants.

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