Sedwick Suicide Reflects Cultural Empathy Void

Connecting the dots isn’t that hard.

There’s really only one kind of bully – the kind without empathy. They come in all ages, nationalities and religions. And from all socio-economic groups.

They think it’s cool to be cruel, and gloat with satisfaction when someone less vindictive buckles under their malicious barbs.

And so Rebecca Sedwick, a 12-year-old middle-schooler from Lakeland, Fla., ended her life on September 9, jumping from an abandoned cement factory silo. According to news reports, a couple of Sedwick’s classmates – 14 year-old Guadalupe Shaw and her 12 year-old accomplice – led a bully circle of more than a dozen adolescent girls  in harassing her to death.

Rebecca Sedwick

Rebecca Sedwick

And wasn’t that the point of Shaw’s year-long campaign? To destroy Sedwick?

I cried in the shower. Not just for Sedwick, but for all those involved who now have to live with this tragedy.

The girls, students at Crystal Lake Middle School, bullied Sedwick such ferocity and venom that the victim’s mother removed her daughter from school only to have the bullying proceed unabated online.

Did I say the victim was 12?

One message told Sedwick to drink bleach and die.

News reports say she made an unsuccessful attempt at suicide  last December, slitting her wrists.

In a fascinating but unsurprising twist,  Shaw’s stepmother, 30-year-old Vivian Vosberg,  was arrested last Friday on separate child abuse and neglect charges.

vivian vosburg arrested

 Vivian Vosberg

Neighbors tipped off police that Vosberg might have been involved in beating children. Vosberg’s daughter (though it wasn’t clear which one) posted a Facebook video of her mother punching two boys in the face, providing insight into a clear empathy-void within the family.

I’d call it a crater.

Guadalupe Shaw(Left) and Katelyn Roman (right)

Photo: On left: 14-year-old Guadalupe Shaw. Right: her 12-year-old accomplice

In a press conference, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd announced that Shaw made an incriminating comment on social media:  “Yeah I bullied Rebecca, and yeah she’s dead, but I don’t give a blank.” The two young ringleaders  were arrested last Monday and later released into the custody of their families.

That’s a laugh. At least in Shaw’s case.

It was over a boy, this whole thing. Jealousy over a 12-year-old, baby-faced boy.

The school held anti-bullying assemblies, but it seems the attempts were too little and too late.

I’m not surprised. Changing the cultural climate of a school takes serious effort and commitment. A few assembly programs are like putting a band-aid on a war zone.

You can’t just “zap” a meanie with a magic wand and say, “There, you’re nice.”

I guess I’m tired of it. Tired of all the hatred. And not only for pretty brown-haired Sedwick.

Many times bullying is so minuscule it goes unrecognized. It’s the razor sharp comment that comes barreling out of a friend’s mouth. “I just know the girl who cuts my hair could make yours look so much better.”

It’s the child in the sandbox who’s just repeating to a playmate what he’s heard at home. “I wish you would go away and stay away!”

It’s the boss who talks to you as though you were an amoeba. “I decided to use your office for a 1:00 meeting. It’s a lot neater than mine. Just clear your stuff off the desk.”

And on it goes.

The problem with bullies is that they don’t want you to have a voice. And if you try to communicate a need, what you do think and feel, they’ll usually try to talk you down.

They need for you to keep quiet and not challenge them in order to maintain the status quo, a world that doesn’t force them to examine their own pain and shortcomings.

What Rebecca Sedwick thought and felt didn’t matter to Shaw and her gang of cyber-thugs.

I am proud to have kids who spoke out for the underdog. And spoke out for themselves. I’ve done role-playing many times, helping my children think through possible dialogues.

But protecting kids from bullies – and from becoming bullies – starts long before middle school, when teenage emotions crescendo.

It starts in infancy, by giving your baby a voice.

How does that work?

When a baby cries, he needs to know that someone is listening. A mother or father who cares about him more than anything, and will respond to those cries immediately and with love.

I recently posted this on my Facebook Fan Page. It’s from an interview with neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, titled “Logging In To The Brain’s Social Network” aired last week on NPR’s Science Friday: “[I]f you’re a mammalian infant, what you really need to survive, is a caregiver who has an urge to connect with you so strong, that when they hear you cry and smell the smells that come from babies, they actually go toward you instead of away from you.”

Hearing Sedwick’s cries. That’s what the bullies couldn’t do. To these girls, being cruel was cool.

And it’s easy to see why. If no one tuned-in to their cries when they were babies, picked them up and smiled at them. If their caregivers failed to connect with and nurture them as small children, it only makes sense that these bullies would lack empathy for others.

We protect what we love.  Don’t you think kids know that? All the anti-bullying programs in the world won’t fix the problem until we get parenting right. Connect the dots.  FFG

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