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In central Florida, the arrests of two middle school girls have shaken the community. The pair is charged with felonies in a case of alleged cyber-bullying that led to a suicide of a 12-year-old girl. Authorities say the suspects bullied the girl for more than a year, taunting her in-person and then online. The abuse continued even after the girl changed schools.
From member station WMFE in Orlando, Nicole Creston reports.
NICOLE CRESTON, BYLINE: In announcing the arrests, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said the girls, ages 12 and 14, were taken into custody after a post appeared on one of their Facebook pages over the weekend.
SHERIFF GRADY JUDD: Yes, I bullied Rebecca, and she killed herself but I don't give a - and you can add the last word yourself.
CRESTON: Judd says his office was already building a case against the two girls in connection with Rebecca Sedwick's suicide last month. She jumped from a silo at an abandoned concrete factory. He says the 14-year-old's callous comment forced his deputies into making an arrest sooner than they'd planned.
JUDD: We decided that, look, we can't leave her out there. Who else is she going to torment? Who else is she going to harass? Who's the next person that she verbally and mentally abuses and attacks?
CRESTON: According to authorities, the girls began to bully Rebecca when the 14-year-old suspect began dating Rebecca's ex-boyfriend. The girl initiated physical fights with Rebecca and convinced others to join in the bullying. The sheriff praised Rebecca's mom for moving her daughter to another school and providing counseling. Still, the harassment continued online.
Curt Lavarello is executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, a Florida-based nonprofit that provides anti-bullying training and assessments nationwide. He says the Internet has changed the dynamics of bullying, often making victims feel like they can't get away.
CURT LAVARELLO: Bullying really used to be almost a Monday through Friday, 8 to 4 kind of event that we saw centered around schools. And, you know, most students felt if they could get through to that Friday at 4:00, they have the weekend to hope that things would kind of die down.
CRESTON: But Lavarello says with the advent of social media and smartphones, bullies have constant access to their victims. Today, the Polk County sheriff went on national talk shows and said because of that, parents need to be more vigilant monitoring their children's online interactions.
Joy Black is a parent in the town of Lakeland, where this happened. Today, she spoke out about the arrests, saying there should be consequences but not necessarily jail time.
JOY BLACK: They should have to reach out to the community or they should even have to speak out and go to schools and talk about the things that they've done and why people shouldn't bully.
CRESTON: The investigation is not complete. The sheriff says as many as 15 other students may have participated in the bullying at some point in the past year. And it's possible other charges and arrests could happen soon. For NPR News, I'm Nicole Creston in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.