TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The mother of a Florida girl who committed suicide after she was allegedly bullied said Friday that she's backing a bill that would make such behavior illegal in the state.
During a news conference, Tricia Norman, along with her attorney and Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, said that HB 451 and an accompanying bill in the Florida Senate have been filed. They would make it a first-degree misdemeanor to willfully, maliciously or repeatedly harass or cyberbully another person, and a third-degree felony if there's a "credible threat" involved in the harassment.
Possible consequences for violating a misdemeanor would include counseling, community service or juvenile detention; punishment for the felony charge would be harsher.
No bullying law in currently on the books in Florida; some kids have been charged with aggravated stalking.
Norman said that if such a law had been in place in 2013, maybe her daughter wouldn't have committed suicide.
Rebecca Sedwick, 12, committed suicide in September. A month later, the Polk County Sheriff's Office arrested two classmates, ages 12 and 14, on charges of aggravated stalking. Those charges were dropped, with officials citing insufficient evidence.
"Kids need to know it's wrong to bully," Norman said. "Kids need to have consequences when they do bully."
Florida does have a law dealing with bullying on school grounds. The Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act — named after a Southwest Florida teen who committed suicide after he was bullied — requires school districts to adopt an official policy prohibiting bullying and harassment of students and staff on school grounds, at school-sponsored events, and through school computer networks.
Norman has already filed a notice of intent to sue the Polk County School District for negligence. Norman said that she told school officials about the other girls' treatment of Rebecca and even home schooled her daughter for a while.
Norman said Friday that she has devoted her life to anti-bullying efforts.
"This is what my daughter would want me to do in her honor," said Norman.
A series of student suicides in recent years has drawn attention to the problem of bullying in schools in the U.S. and Canada.
The U.S. federal government last year released data showing a rise in cyberbullying and youth suicide, despite efforts by schools and authorities to combat the problem through anti-bullying laws and various educational and awareness programs.