Leo Vasquez stood in front of about 60 people on Thursday night at SAISD’s Burnet Center as a projected screen next to him displayed screenshots of tweets sent to his son, Matthew.
“I hope your cancer comes back and kills you, you ugly disgusting f***,” Leo read aloud to the silent audience. “(Matthew) isn’t Human, he doesn’t deserve to be treated as one. Hitler was more loved than he was.”
Later, Leo Vasquez said, an eight page rant appeared on Instagram under another anonymous account. The rant suggested that Matthew kill himself, and offered suggestions on how to do it.
“It would be a pleasure to watch the life drain out of you.”
Two years ago, Matthew was diagnosed with cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy, the Antonian College Preparatory High School student, then a freshman, lost most of his hair. Soon after, a Twitter account, “MattsBaldHead,” used a stolen picture of Matthew as its avatar and began tweeting viciously hateful messages about the teenager.
Leo read the tweets to state and local officials, district employees, parents, and students from across the city during a community workshop on cyberbullying hosted by state Sen. José Menéndez. It featured more than a half-dozen speakers, including friends and family of David Molak, 16, who took his own life in early January after being bullied with vicious texts and through social media.
His tragic death has brought renewed public interest on how the justice system can prevent and punish cyberbullying, but Menéndez said he was working with colleagues on such legislation just weeks before Molak’s body was found.
Menéndez and state Rep. Ina Minjarez will host several community workshops over the coming months to create and submit identical bills to both the Texas State House and Senate, in hopes that at least one of them will become law. Though inspired by Matthew and countless other victims of cyberbullying, the legislation will be named David’s Law in his memory.
David’s brothers Cliff and Chris joined their father, Matt Molak, at the meeting. They spoke to the audience on Thursday night about the legislation that they hope will be David’s legacy. Mr. Molak said his ultimate goal is that no other children’s lives are lost, and that no other families experience what they are now.
“We’re here to follow this through,” he said. Noting that constitutional rights and issues of jurisdiction would likely be hurdles in making David’s Law a reality, Mr. Molak remained optimistic. “I’m confident that we can work through those (issues) if we keep in mind that we’re talking about safety, and saving children’s lives.”
The five law enforcement agencies — from local police to the Federal Bureau of Investigation — that the Vasquez family contacted about Matthew’s harassment didn’t think that posts or the tweets before it amounted to a real threat. Not one pursued criminal charges. The tweets and posts were enough to make Matthew’s life miserable, but did not constitute a “credible” danger in the eyes of law enforcement or the law itself. Without their support, the Vasquez family has been unable to determine the identity of the bully, who has flitted from one anonymous account to another, declaring that every time the family gets one of the accounts banned by Twitter, the bully would just “come back stronger.”
“I’m ten steps ahead you think you can track me?” read one tweet.
Mr. Vasquez, with the help of legislators Menéndez and Minjarez, hopes that he will be able to do just that in the future. Matthew’s cancer is now in remission, and his family hopes that new legislation will give more resources to other minors who face cyberbullying.
Mary Lou Mendoza, a mother and grandmother who attended the meeting and plans to be involved in the process of drafting the bill, is also hopeful that David’s Law will bring change.
“I really want to see us do some concrete things, and I think this is going to be the vehicle for that,” she said afterward.
Mendoza said her own son, who is now in his twenties, was bullied during elementary and middle school. The bullies only stopped, she says, when her son fought back physically.
Confronting the tormentors, however, is often not an option for victims of cyberbullying. Many bullies, like the one who harassed Matthew, remain anonymous.
“If you don’t have a fear of getting caught, unfortunately, I think it makes it so much easier,” Mendoza said.
Menéndez agreed that anonymity has made bullying more prevalent, and noted that it has also made it easier for people to be less empathetic.
“I think bullying has gotten worse because of the anonymity that the Internet provides us,” Menendez said after the meeting. “Because we’re not expressing these horrific words face to face. Because I can’t see the pain that the words cause you, I think that’s why it’s gotten worse.”
David Molak’s brother, Cliff, though he graduated from Alamo Heights only six years ago, expressed some astonishment at how much social life had changed between his time there and his brother’s.
“I look back and I don’t think that we were ever that bad,” he said. “That we would never make decisions like they’re making right now. And I’ve been trying to think of what factor changed for them, and the only thing I can come up with is the advent of technology.”
Still, Cliff is careful not to let fears about technology’s role in bullying slip away from the social world teenagers have always inhabited.
“People are worried about, how do you track down cyberbullies,” he said. “But the answer is, you’re never really anonymous. Anonymity in this case is relative. I think that these people who engage in bullying, their friends know they’re bullying, they’re bullying so that they can show off what they’re doing. So that they can get a laugh or a like or a comment.”
Cliff suggested that offline knowledge be harnessed to curtail bullying.
“If you’re able to come up with an anonymous reporting system in which you can comment which username corresponds to which student, I think that would be the most effective way to stop this,” he said.
That idea, along the other thoughts gathered Thursday night,will certainly not be the last attempt to create a solution – or at least mitigation – for cyberbullying.
*Top image: State Sen. José Menéndez speaks with attendees after the workshop. Photo by Abbey Francis.