A Heartbreaking – And Preventable – Death

The official records note Rebecca Sedwick’s death as a suicide.  There’s no disputing that the 12-year-old jumped to her death from an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland, Florida, on September 9, but what happened to her requires new terminology.  Perhaps we should call it “peer-icide” or “peer-slaughter” to convey what killed Rebecca, who had been “absolutely terrorized on social media” by 15 middle school girls for over a year, according to the Sheriff of Polk County, Grady Judd.

Preventing tragedies like this requires more than vigilance by parents and educators. Anti-bullying campaigns can’t hurt, but unless schools are proactive in their use of technology so that the energies of young people are engaged in meaningful ways, idle hands (and thumbs) will continue to do the devil’s work.

‘Mean girls’ are not a new phenomenon.  What is new and frightening are the weapons at their disposal, an array of apps that allow users to post and send messages anonymously.  Rebecca’s mother singled out ask.fm, Kik Messenger and Voxer as three the girls had used to send messages like “You’re ugly,” “Can U die please?” and “Why are you still alive?”

Rebecca is one of the youngest children to die in what is reported to be a growing number of victims of cyberbullying.  About 20 percent of young people have been victimized, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, a clearinghouse of information on cyberbullying. About 15 percent of teens admit that they have bullied or ridiculed others on social media, photo-sharing and other websites, according to the Center.

“It’s now 24-7. It’s not just something you can escape after the school day,” Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, told the Orlando Sentinel

Rebecca and her mother, Tricia Norman, fought back.  Ms. Norman told the New York Times that she closed down Rebecca’s Facebook page and monitored her cellphone use.  She changed the cellphone number and kept tabs on her social media footprint.  Rebecca changed schools, and, for a while, her life seemed to have turned around.  Then she began using the new Apps, setting off a new round of cyberbullying.  (Apparently her original ‘offense’ was showing interest in a boy that one of the other girls liked.)

“I don’t want parents to wait for a tragedy to have those conversations,” Cherie Benjoseph, Co-Founder of Boca Raton-based KidSafe Foundation, Inc told WPTV. “We’re all still pretty naive on many levels,” she said. “We’re all still crossing our fingers and hoping it doesn’t happen to our children.”

Benjoseph said that Sedwick’s suicide should be a wake-up call to all parents to demand to know what their their kids are really doing online. Keeping computers and phones out of a child’s bedroom is another good move, she says, because what teens do online must not be off-limits to parents. “Our children sometimes lead double lives,” she said.

It probably makes sense to have certain ‘device-free’ times at home, especially at meal times.  It’s difficult to know what’s going on in your children’s life if they are always looking at screens.

Bedrooms should be device-free.  I know parents who’ve placed a basket at the foot of the stairs, and everyone (including the adults) is required to leave their phones in the basket when they head upstairs to bed.  The phones recharge downstairs, the humans upstairs.  Computers and tablets belong in common spaces, not in bedrooms.

Getting all parents to adopt sensible policies and practices is unrealistic, particularly in a time when a lot of parents seem to negotiate every decision with their children, no matter how young they may be.  But even if all parents were to adopt these practices, little will change unless the schools do the right thing.

Schools are where most children are, and adults there can set the tone and–more importantly–determine what kids do with their devices. I often hear adults describing today’s young people as ‘digital natives,’ usually with a tone of resignation or acceptance: “They are so far ahead of us, but we can turn to them for help,” is the general message I hear.

That kind of thinking smacks of abdication of adult responsibility. Yes, most young people know more than we adults because the fast-changing world of modern technology is alien to us, wildly different from the one we grew up in. But being a ‘digital native’ is not the same as being a ‘digital citizen.’ Young people have always needed ethical guidance and the security of rules and boundaries. That’s truer now because apps like ask.fm, Kik Messenger and Voxer allow kids to ‘go nuclear’ without fear of being identified.  Kids who spend hours every day on their devices are unlikely to develop empathy for others, and it’s a lack of empathy that seems to fuel cyberbullying.

Photo Credit: Susan Landmann

Some experts say that kids spend ninety percent of their tech time consuming, and perhaps one percent doing creative work.  If that’s accurate–texting, playing Angry Birds and Grand Theft Auto, linking up on Facebook and Google Circles, sexting and cyberbullying 90 percent of the time–then we adults should be ashamed.

Unless, of course, we are equally guilty of obsessing over our devices.

A central function of schools is what’s often called ‘socialization.’  It might be more useful to substitute ‘developing empathy’ for ‘socialization.’  As Catherine Steiner-Adair notes in her new book, The Big Disconnect, “Empathy might seem a ‘soft’ skill when compared to reading, writing, and math, but it is actually a neurological phenomenon as well as a soulful one,” adding “The development of empathy comes from direct experience…”

Cathy Davidson of Duke says much the same thing: “The brain is what it does.”

Both are echoing the timeless wisdom of Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do.”

In my experience,  the education community uses technology 90 percent of its time to control, and perhaps 10 percent to create.  I mean ‘control’ broadly, everything from keeping the school’s master schedule, monitoring attendance and grades, tracking teacher performance, and imparting the knowledge we believe kids need to have.  That’s the complete opposite of what should be happening.

Because an important purpose of school is to help ‘grow adults,’ then the creative use of technology — by adults and young people — must be ramped up dramatically.

Students ought to be using today’s technologies to create knowledge and to find answers to important questions. If they aren’t doing that, then those idle hands and thumbs will be doing the devil’s work, as those girls in South Florida were doing.

Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7. You and I went to school because that’s where the knowledge was stored. That was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. They need to be able to formulate good questions–because computers have all the answers.

Here are a few ways to harness technology and foster creativity.

1 Every middle school science class could have its own hand-held air quality monitor (under $200). Students could take air quality measurements three times a day, chart the readings, share the information in real time with every other middle school science class in the city, region or state, and scour the data for consistencies and anomalies. That’s creating knowledge out of the flood of information, and it’s real work, not ‘homework.

2. Students could use their smart phones’ cameras to map their own neighborhoods, documenting (for example) the number of trash cans on street corners. That information could be plotted and shared city-wide, and the data could be examined for patterns and anomalies. Are there more trash cans in wealthy areas? If so, ask the Mayor, the Department of Sanitation and the City Council for an explanation. Again, students will be turning information into knowledge. (I wrote about this in more detail here.)

3. Why not measure water quality? A hand-held monitor/tester of Ph costs under $100, and the instrument that tests conductivity (ion levels, which relates to purity) is available for under $100. Turbidity — how cloudy the water is — is important to measure as well, and that can be done with an inexpensive instrument and a formula. Students could also measure the speed of the current and keep track of detritus. Then share all the data with other science classes around the city, region and state. Everyone could dig into the information looking for patterns. If one river’s water seems relatively pure until it passes point X, students could endeavor to find out why.

Work like this is, well, real work. Students are creating knowledge; they are designing projects and seeing them through from beginning to end. These projects have to meet real-world standards because the results are in public view.

(The rest of the curriculum ought to be designed to engage learners, of course.  Project-based learning makes sense to me, if the projects are genuine explorations of meaningful topics.  Working together toward real goals is one avenue to developing empathy.  And I think it goes without saying that educators need to pay more attention to the social and emotional needs of students.  I’ve been in schools which set aside a period a day for the school equivalent of a hospital’s grand rounds: everyone who has Rasheed or Anita in class has the opportunity to talk about how those individual kids are doing–and not just in subject matter mastery.)

When schools do these things, young people will be learning (or reinforcing) real-world skills that will help them once they move out of school. They’re working together, they are gathering, assimilating and analyzing data, they are learning how to present what they are learning, and so on. They will be working with numbers and writing persuasive reports. No doubt some will be speaking publicly about their findings. This is career-track stuff, 180 degrees different from the ‘regurgitation education’ that is the hallmark of most education today.

And it’s a zero-sum game: The hours they spend on projects like these are hours they cannot spend consuming technology. And because they are using technology to create, they will not be bored–and will be less likely to use technology’s power negatively.  Stronger in their own sense of self, they will probably be less likely to feel the need to cyber-bully others.  Had Rebecca Sedwick’s schools taken this approach, she might be alive today.

We cannot wish today’s powerful technology away or keep it out of our children’s hands.  It’s naive to think that anti-bullying campaigns and posters will be sufficient.

Technology, which is value-free, can be used for good or ill. How it is used in schools depends in large part on us.

10 thoughts on “A Heartbreaking – And Preventable – Death

  1. John, you win my award (OK, so it’s a small award) for best blog of the year. This is the balanced, thoughtful approach to technology we should all have. Your 3 suggestions for things to do would change not only how technology is used but also lead students to understand the fundamental science hidden in plain sight around them. Clean air and water and recycling/energy use will be even bigger issues for US students this decade, as they have been for the developing world.


  2. There are a number of good books about bullying, including “Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy,” by Emily Bazelon (2013) and “Bullying and Cyberbullying: What Every Educator Needs to Know,” by Elizabeth Kandel Englander (also 2013)


  3. And how did Schooldigger.com rank the school she left vs. the one she went to.

    Your case for socialization is made, but too many, far too many parents think that school is to pour data into blank slate brains, and those parents are far too often affirmed by bureaucrats, politicians and bad or scared teachers who comply in order to get raises – or think they’ll get raises in a declining sector.

    I strongly recommend two other blogs that amplify your conclusions. First, James Aloisi’s analysis of Boston politics, which highlights how difficult – and critical – assimilation and diversity are to the vitality of cities. His is an easily generalized conclusion, since he’s very sensitive to history (http://www.commonwealthmagazine.org/Meet-the-Authors/James-Aloisi.aspx). And second, Andrew Zimmerman’s piece on Somerville, MA., in The Urbanophile, which is itself a response to the Boston Globe’s piece on Somerville’s gentrification (http://www.urbanophile.com/2013/09/17/boston-whither-somerville-by-andrew-zimmermann/). Both pieces – which are essentially complementary – show why and how gentrification and social change exacerbate exactly those conditions that lead to bullying, badgering, and even outright violence.

    Sometimes the global or large scale analyses do offer real insights into what that little girl encountered, and what her torturers intended. Neither was, itself, either unique nor exceptional, but, together, they were catastrophic. And, frankly, I’d like to blame it on Duncan’s obsession with testing, and parent and teacher over simplifications that disparage diversity. So, I guess I will.


  4. In what context could you conceive of an environment that would lead to one adolescent suggesting to another that they would be better off dead and they should go do it? Where does that idea enter one’s head?

    Modern technology is just another tool. Somewhat similar to the guns we don’t want to ban.

    More effort has to be made to teach our children to include, not exclude others. To be tolerant.

    The take no prisoners actions of our elected leaders that lead to and encourage gridlock is the worst example for our children.

    Make no mistake about it, adults knew what was going on. They tolerated it, condoned it.

    The recommended curricular uses of technology are good ideas, mentioned in previous blogs, but I don’t see how they would have prevented this tragedy and many others nearly as bad.

    John, you have called out educational leaders at all levels in the past few years to voice some outrage, take some action. Very few, if any do.

    Fairness has gone out the window for some reason.

    We need to get it back. There must a reward, other than some intangible, intrinsic reward, to get us back on the right path. Then it will be natural to treat each individual with the respect they deserve.


  5. John,

    I have so much respect for you and the work you do. I am always amazed at the high quality of the video of the segments you produce and think you are under-appreciated for recognizing the harm of the prescription drug epidemic before everyone else.

    What frustrates me is your unwillingness to appreciate the culpability of the school environment. “Mean girls” is a relatively new phenomena. Mean and apathetic children are created by schools who process children on an assembly line and treat them with very little respect and give them no autonomy over their lives. They bully as a means of both replicating the treatment they endure, and to feel a sense of power. Blaming technology-use for lack of empathy is misguided.

    Your recommendation about constructive uses of technology are admirable and wonderful, but they are misdirected when it comes to bullying and they are not likely to be implemented because 1) Schools do no want the liability of having children outside of the classrooms 2) Parents, on the whole, depressingly believe that if a child isn’t in the classroom then he/she isn’t learning. 3) The activities you propose are outside of the common core and are not easily testable in terms of evaluating student learning and teacher teaching.

    I have yet to come across a good book on bullying (including the two you mention in a prior response) because not a single one that I have seen acknowledges the impact of environment in any meaningful way. Can you imagine placing a population in a confined environment against their will and depriving them of the capacity to make choices that affect their lives and to NOT address that when evaluating their behavior? These authors are an affront to scholarly practice and do a grave disservice to children. Their work is propaganda designed to avoid confronting this uncomfortable reality by placing blame anywhere else.

    In short, the system is a monster and has the capacity for producing monstrous behavior. It isn’t the technology, though that can certainly be a tool for cruelty. Let’s target the right thing for a change – the design of public schools. I only wish all the good intentioned people who work in the system would appreciate that all of their best efforts will always be undermined by forces beyond their control.


  6. A number of years ago Debra Tannen wrote the book, “You Don’t Understand” the basic premise of which was, men set rank and women build community, when one gender speaks to the other they just don’t understand. This idea created an amazing revelation for me as to the interactions of the students in my third grade classroom, and, I hope, helped me to deal with the distractions to learning, and some of the hurt feelings, that existed in my classroom, and every classroom.

    So much of the discussion of bullying, even your piece, John, seens to ignore what we know today about why and how bullying exists. If we are going to deal with bullying effectively we have to do it from the understanding it is part of culture, even part of genetic make-up. If you look at the way males treat other males and females in every country and society in the world, and the way females accept their treatment and treat other females in the world you can see the rank setting and community building. To make change there is a lot of understanding needed to undo the bullying cultures that prevails, even in the U.S.

    The internet has certainly increased the ability to bully, and expanded the individual’s fear, anxiety and perception of how bad the personal bullying is, the real issue in addressing this human flaw is to educate our students in human nature. Can we skirt around the issue and change the use of the internet, or can we actually change the way humans interact? If we can’t change the interaction to a more humane level I don’t believe we’ll have much luck with a few science curriculum changes.


  7. A story in today’s Newsday reminds us that all it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing.

    The solution is to merely speak out. Not for the participants or the observers of the mob to remain silent.

    People sometimes need to be reminded to be empowered and maybe a little direction on how and where to speak up.

    Newsday LILife section Bullying and Silence, sisters make a film….


  8. Yes, this is very sad. It should not have happened and it should never happen again.

    Too bad you don’t see making children of color subservient to their mostly white drill sergeant teachers as tragic too, John.


    • Apparently, it’s only egregious when children bully other children.

      Bullying seems to be just fine when charter school teachers bully students under the guise of “character development,” so they’ll develop “grit” and learn obedience.

      Bullying of teachers by politicians and corporate “reformers” is okay, too, even though the bullies are mostly men and teachers are primarily women.

      Something is terribly wrong when a society has double standards for what is considered to be acceptable abuses of power, torment and oppression.

      And when educated people don’t rail against it but join in instead, it’s called the Third Reich.


      • It looks like John thinks it’s okay to bully scholarly little old ladies, too. He would probably not see what he did as bullying, but one should always ask the victim how they feel about being targeted…


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