Florida officials have charged two girls, ages 12 and 14, with felonies for allegedly taunting and bullying another 12-year-old girl until she committed suicide.
Such criminal charges are extremely rare, although the problem of bullying and victimizing other teens is an age-old one.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Tuesday that he made the arrests Monday after one of the two girls posted on Facebook as recently as Saturday that she had bullied the victim, Rebecca Sedwick of Lakeland, Fla., and didn't care that she had died.
Rebecca, who killed herself Sept. 9 by jumping off a cement factory tower, was "terrorized" by as many as 15 girls who picked on her for months through online message boards and texts, according to authorities in Lakeland, Fla. One message said she should "drink bleach and die.''
The online harassment allegedly continued after she transferred to a different school.
Experts who have studied social aggression in teens, including bullying via the Internet, say such harassment is a widespread problem that has gained increased attention in the digital age, when written threats and taunts live indefinitely online.
About one-fifth of all teens report having experienced cyberbullying, says Justin Patchin, professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. He said the actions in the Florida case were extreme because of the length of the harassment, the number of teens involved and the seriousness of their postings.
"It is generally very rare for criminal charges to be filed against teens for these kinds of behaviors,'' Patchin said. "Kids have been bullying each other for generations. ... What makes it different is the long-standing nature, the permanent nature of statements online.''
Rosalind Wiseman, a Washington, D.C., author of two books on teen bullying, including a new one about boys titled Masterminds and Wingmen, said the relentlessness of cyberbullying can make teens feel isolated and miserable.
"Kids have been bullying each other for generations. ... What makes it different is the long-standing nature, the permanent nature of statements online."
— Rosalind Wiseman, author
"Because it is so public, it makes everyone feel like it's happening all the time,'' she said. "The thing that makes the victims feel desperately miserable is the feeling the entire community is ganging up on them and nobody is coming to their side.''
Though bullying is as old as classrooms, only in the past decade or so have states moved to address with legislation what once was simply the domain of schools. In 1999, only Georgia had an anti-bullying law. Now every state but Montana does. In the past 14 years, states have enacted nearly 130 anti-bullying measures, half of them since 2008.
Spurred partly by the Columbine shootings in 1999, when news accounts suggested the perpetrators had been bullied, states began rapidly addressing bullying, a 2011 U.S. Department of Education report found. Eighteen states have laws that allow victims to seek legal remedies, either from schools that don't act or from the bullies themselves
The suspects were charged as juveniles with aggravated stalking, a third-degree felony, according to the Polk County sheriff's office.
"Bullying in and of itself is not a crime. But bullying makes up the predicate acts for stalking or aggravated stalking," Judd said.
If found guilty, it's not clear how much time, if any, the girls would spend in juvenile detention because they did not have any previous criminal history, the sheriff said.
The judge in the case remanded the 14-year-old girl into the custody of juvenile authorities, the sheriff's office said in a statement. The 12-year-old, described as a one-time friend of Rebecca's, was released into her parents custody "due to her remorse and cooperation." She will not be allowed to attend school, the statement said.
Ludd said a feud had erupted after the 14-year-old suspect began dating a boy Rebecca had been seeing. She "began to harass and ultimately torment Rebecca," Judd said.
The sheriff said the 14-year-old was "very cold, had no emotion at all upon her arrest." The second suspect was once the victim's best friend.
Judd said that the pair were the main culprits, but that the investigation continues into the possible involvement of other girls.
The sheriff said the tipping point leading to the arrests came when one of the suspects purportedly showed a lack of remorse for Rebecca's death by allegedly posting on Facebook on Saturday: "Yes ik [I know] I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but IDGAF [I don't give a (expletive)]"
The suspect told deputies that her Facebook account was hacked and that she did not write that post, WTSP-TV reported.
The sheriff's office says that in interviews with detectives, the 12-year-old suspect "admitted that she 'bullied' Rebecca and said she was sorry.
Judd said police decided to make the arrests out of concern that the girls would pick a new victim.
"We decided, look, we can't leave her out there," Judd said. "Who else is she going to torment? Who else is she going to harass? Who is the next person she verbally and mentally abuses and attacks?"
He said the parents did not cooperate, would not take them to the police and would not stop their daughters' use of social media.
A man who answered the phone at the 14-year-old suspect's Lakeland home told the Associated Press that he was her father and said that "none of it's true."
"My daughter's a good girl, and I'm 100% sure that whatever they're saying about my daughter is not true," he said.
A message left at the 12-year-old girl's home was not immediately returned, the AP said.
Rebecca's mother, Tricia Norman, told WTSP last month that the constant bullying drove her daughter to kill herself, and that the school district did not do enough to protect her.
"They would tell her she's ugly, stupid, nobody liked her, go kill herself," said Norman, who launched an anti-bullying campaign Rebecca Sedwich — Against Bullying, on Facebook.
Rebecca ran away in November and was hospitalized the following month for three days after cutting herself. At one point, the school stepped in to separate the girls' schedules because of fights. Rebecca later changed schools, but the bullying continued online, on sites such as Ask.fm, Kik, Instagram and Voxer, authorities said.
Judd said that on the morning of Sept. 9, Rebecca texted a boy she had met online from the cement tower, saying she couldn't take it anymore and she was jumping.
Judd said the "red flags" for possible suicide were there. On her computer, police found search queries for topics including "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 screensavers also showed Rebecca with her head resting on a railroad track.
Florida has a bullying law named after Jeffrey Johnson, a teenage "techno geek" who was bullied for two years before hanging himself in his closet at age15. Amended July 1 to cover cyberbullying, the law leaves punishment to schools, but law enforcement also can seek more traditional charges.
Contributing: Greg Toppo, USA TODAY; The Associated Press