I actually started this post several weeks ago, and meant to have it posted on August 28th, the official first day of school in Texas, but due to Hurricane Harvey, and his effect on the Texas Gulf Coast, I decided to focus on other issues. As of September 18, there are several districts along the Gulf Coast that are just now opening their doors to students due to damage from Harvey. Please keep those affected in your thoughts and prayers. Thank you.
Across the country, schools are welcoming millions of students through their doors. From wide eyed kindergartners to ready for it to all be over seniors, over 50 million students will be enrolled this year. Unfortunately, at some of these schools, familiar faces will be missing. It is one of the sad facts of life that people, even young people, pass away. Whether it is illness, accident, or self-inflicted, we lose students. However, thanks to the efforts of one courageous mother, students in Texas will return to something different.
Aside from teachers, there will be something new greeting students in Texas, and that is SB 179, better known as David's Law. The law itself is named after 16 year old David Molak who took his life in January of 2016. David had been a student at the affluent Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio. Alamo Heights is a well regarded and award winning school district, and it is considered by many to be the most affluent in Bexar County. Like any high school, the student body at Alamo Heights has its cliques and pecking order, and at one point, David became the target of an onslaught of harassment through text messages and social media. Eventually the pain became too much for David to bear, and David took his life. In the aftermath David's death, Cliff made a post to Facebook that has since gone viral talking about the unrelenting harassment and cyberbullying David received. He spoke openly and candidly about the effects the bullying had on David, the heart wrenching pain, and ultimately the consequences of the long term harassment.
After David's death, news came out that David had been bullied and harassed since at least February of the previous year, had switched schools as a result, and had even attempted to take his life before. In addition, the San Antonio and Alamo Heights police departments, and the Bexar County District Attorney's Office began an investigation into the alleged harassment. Sadly, after a several month investigation that ended in May of 2016, Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood announced that no charges would be filed because the current laws in regards to cyber bullying were too vague. “If we’re not talking about physical bullying, we’re really talking about harassment, and that is a vague statute,” LaHood said. “Under the harassment statute, we have to have the evidence to back up the different elements of the allegation, and it’s just not there.”
Although it seemed that this was a closed case, changes loomed on the horizon that would bring positive change. The Alamo Heights Independent School District, under the leadership of Superintendent Kevin Brown, created a Task Force comprised of teachers, district administrators, mental health professionals, technology experts, and medical professionals to assess the effectiveness of current campus practices related to:
- character education
- social and emotional wellness, and
- digital citizenship
They met with parents, students, teachers, counselors, administrators, law enforcement, medical and mental health professionals, legal experts, and bus drivers in order to find out what can be done to improve the existing policies and practices to create a safer and more productive atmosphere, as we'll as address social and emotional wellness. They set up programs for staff and student education, set up support networks, hired additional personnel to reduce the ratio and allow more personal interactions, addressed the issues of over scheduling and overburdening students in order to decrease stress. They developed principles of character education to ensure that [their] character development efforts are intentional, on-going, and consistently implemented across campuses, and in forms that students relate to. Implemented a 24-hour Code of Leadership to establish higher expectations for our students and anticipate that all students will participate in extra-curricular activities during their secondary school career, and required all clubs and sports to adhere to it as well. Most importantly, they updated district policies to state that bullying occurs when a student or group of students engages in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct that occurs on school property, at a school-sponsored or school-related activity, or in a vehicle operated by the District, “or any other manner that disrupts the educational environment.”
The findings and suggestions of the Alamo Heights Task Force Report were presented to the school board and became one of the first board policies on Texas to address cyberbullying directly, and included stricter consequences, up to and including expulsion, for the perpetrators.
in November of 2016 Texas State Senator Jose Menedez and State Representative Ina Minjarez, both from San Antonio, filed Senate Bill 179, also known as David's Law, with the Texas Legislature. Following many of the guidelines and principles set forth by the Alamo Heights Task Force, the earliest form of the bill would classify cyberbullying as a felony, allow courts to issue subpoenas to unmask people who anonymously harass minors online and require public schools to report and intervene in any suspected cyberbullying cases. It also allowed victims to sue cyberbullies’ parents if the parents could have intervened but didn't.
Just like any law, there was push back from various groups who felt that the law was too severe, or that it focused more on punishment than rehabilitation. According to sources close to the bill, two of the biggest opponents were the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA), and the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB). Allegedly, both TASA and TASB opposed that requirement that schools must investigate incidents of cyberbullying that occur off campus and not during school hours. The key to this requirement is that the cyberbullying must interfere with a student's education opportunities, or substantially disrupts the orderly operation of a classroom, school, school sponsored, or school related activities. After all, how can a student concentrate on standardized testing if they are worried about getting their ass kicked after the test? Another sticking point for both organizations was the requirement for every district to establish a way for students to anonymously report incidents of bullying, even though they many already have a way for students to report other crimes. In addition, the organizations balked at the requirement that administrators would have to notify the parents of the student who had been bullied immediately (now changed to within three days), as well as notifying the parents of the bully immediately (but still remains a "reasonable amount of time"). As to why either organization would oppose anything that benefits a student who is being harassed is a true head scratcher, but so it goes.
Sadly, the other part that ended up being dropped was the ability of the bullied person to recoup financial damages from the bully, or bully's parents. It seems that this day and age, the one way you can get the attention of a parent is to take money out of their pocket.
Several of the key components of the law authorizes schools to place the offending bully in an alternative setting, or expel them, if they encourage a student to commit, or attempt to commit, suicide; incite violence against a student through group bullying; or release or threaten to release intimate visual material of a minor or of a stunt who is 18 years of age or older without the student's consent. Perhaps if this has been in effect, Eloise would have been able to finish the school year with her friends, while Tootie sat in alternative school or at home. It allows for civil relief from cyberbullying by relaxing some of the requirements normally applicable for injunctive relief. It also increases the charges from a Class B Misdemeanor to a Class A Misdemeanor, which could mean up to a year in jail, if the offense is committed against a child under the age of 18 with the intent that the child commit suicide or engage in conduct causing serious bodily injury to the child, or the person violates a temporary restraining order or injunction issued under the new civil provisions of David's Law.
It is sad that our society has to create laws to directly address situation like David's, or to hold school districts accountable for protecting the students they are entrusted with, or to deal with parents who oblivious or in denial of their child's actions, but we do. As all students get back to the business of learning, there are many that will benefit from the implementation of David's Law. They should be able to come to school able to apply themselves to their studies without the worry of harassment. If that threat does rear it's ugly head, they now have new resources for dealing with it. I urge all parents out there to familiarize yourself with the elements of David's Law and help educate your kids on how to best utilize the aspects of the law designed to help them, or if they are the bully, inform them of what awaits them in they mistakenly think this law does not apply to them. Administrators, as we send you our sons and daughters, we expect you to keep them safe from harm, to deal with any issues that they may face, and to let us know when, as a parent, we need to get involved. And finally, to the students, know that there are people out there who want to help you and are dedicated to doing so. School should be a safe place for you, and if it isn't, then something can and will be done. You have the right to show up every day and learn, and thanks to David's Law, that will happen.
*This entry is dedicated to Maurine Molak, Kim Hess, Kara Valeca-Yocom, Jacki James, Kevin Childers, and so many others who know the pain of losing a child to suicide, but continue to help others in memory of their child.