About two years ago, a handful of sixth grade girls in Seattle decided to mess with a classmate. They took her coat, tossed it around, and laughed about it. One of those accused of misconduct didn't actually participate in the bullying, but she didn't do anything to stop it, either.
And that ticked her mother off.
"She just stood there and watched," said Renee Womack, the mom. Her response to the incident was not to defend her daughter's inaction, but to hold her just as accountable as the other girls. Womack showed up at her daughter's school and sat in class all day. The lesson was clear: if Womack had to keep an eye on her daughter 24 hours a day to keep her out of trouble, she was going to do it.
Her daughter, now in eighth grade, has not been in trouble since.
Womack recalled that incident when she heard about the burning of Michael Brewer, the 15-year-old Deerfield Beach resident who was set upon by a group of five schoolmates last month. One was directing the attack, according to investigators. Another poured rubbing alcohol on the victim. A third flicked a lighter.
And the other two? Their guilt lies in doing nothing to stop the attack, according to arrest reports released by the Broward Sheriff's Office. Jeremy Jarvis and Steven Shelton watched. And when their friend was literally burning before their eyes, they fled.
And that, in Womack's eyes, makes them just as guilty as the others.
Whether the justice system agrees remains to be seen, but Womack is adamant that they all be held accountable -- even the ones who, as far as is publicly known, just stood there.
Womack went an extra step compared to most who have followed the case, starting an online petition asking the Broward State Attorney's Office to charge the five suspects as adults. As of Friday, the petition gathered more than 880 signatures.
Although she is not a local (originally from Pennsylvania, she now lives in Washington State), Womack felt it important that prosecutors here understand the outrage in this case knows no borders.
"What they did to this young man is horrible," she said. "And then they laughed about it," she said, recalling an early report that two of the five suspects were amused as they were interviewed by detectives.
Lead prosecutor Maria Schneider has said that their decisions have to be based on the evidence and the law, and while they appreciate hearing public sentiment, they can't be swayed by them. The volume of correspondence demanding the harshest possible treatment of the burn suspects is unusual for an office that was widely second-guessed for treating Lionel Tate as an adult even though he was not yet a teenager when he was charged with killing 6-year-old Tiffany Eunick.
That was a capital murder case, punishable by life in prison. And that's the only circumstance under which Florida law allows prosecutors to treat someone as an adult who is under age 14.
Jeremy, the youngest suspect in the Brewer case, is 13. As long as Michael Brewer lives (he's in critical condition at Jackson Memorial Hospital's Burn Center), Jeremy will have to be tried as a juvenile, which means he's due to be released this week.
But the other suspects are 15 and 16.
Womack understands that bowing to public sentiment is the kind of thing that can backfire on a prosecutor, but in this case, she believes the facts of the case warrant adult charges. "I realize the law is the law," she said. "But is this not a heinous act? I mean, how much worse can it get?"
No one will need to monitor Jeremy Jarvis' behavior from the back of a classroom once he's released. According to his lawyer, Jeremy will be sent out of the South Florida region and will be homeschooled for now.
Renee Womack may never know whether her intervention in her daughter's sidelines-bullying stopped something far more serious down the line. But most kids would (hopefully) agree that the embarrassment of having a parent in the classroom today sure beats having to face a judge in the courtroom tomorrow.