Scott Ball / Rivard Report
As of Sept. 1, Texas schools have expanded resources and jurisdiction to confront cyberbullying through legislation known as David’s Law.
The new law aims to reduce cyberbullying through increased accountability, enforcement, and education on mental health issues. It is named after David Molak, an Alamo Heights teen who took his own life after prolonged bullying on Instagram and other social media.
State Sen. Jose Menéndez (D-San Antonio), who with State Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio) sponsored the bill that became David’s Law, said that he hopes to see the conversation on teen suicide and all mental health issues become less reactionary and more proactive.
While he was proud of the law as it was originally written, he said that a House revision made useful changes, adding provisions that begin to address the mental health challenges facing Texas teens. The new law now shines a light on Texas’ inadequate approach to mental health and offers a first step toward changing that, Menéndez said.
“If we know there’s a problem, why aren’t we doing something to address it?” Menéndez asked. “[Teens] spend more time in school than they do anywhere else,” so why not start there?
Implementation of the law will begin in schools, where teachers, principals, and district administrators will be the first responders when cyberbullying incidents come to light.
Since the bill was signed in June, Northside Independent School District has focused on helping administrators and principals understand the law's ramifications, NISD Superintendent Brian Woods said. Bullying comes up regularly, and the district has long had a response plan in place. Woods said that his district's protocols will not change much, except that they now apply to incidents that occur outside of school. The biggest change, however, will be a shift in mindset for students, Woods said.
“The important and more difficult work is educating kids and parents about the change in the law,” Woods said.
For instance, students will now be held accountable for bullying or abuse that happens outside their school's walls. Children are used to the norms of how to behave in school, Woods said. “Now we’re saying it’s all the time.”
Victims now have access to legal protections even before bullying escalates to direct threats or physical assaults. The law allows judges to apply injunctive relief in bullying situations, essentially requiring bullies to cease contact with their victims. Violation of the order will result in criminal charges.
The law also requires school districts to open a hotline for students to report anonymous tips on bullying, which is something some districts will have to implement, Woods said. Some districts, including NISD, already have this hotline in place.
The hotline component of the law came from conversations Menéndez had with members of the Molak family after David’s death. They said that grief-stricken teens had come to them to apologize for not saying anything about David being bullied, even though they knew it was happening. “[The teens] said they didn’t know who to tell,” Menéndez said.
If schools fully implement the law and inform students about their new legal rights and responsibilities, ignorance will no longer prevent students from reporting bullying.
However, not knowing whom to tell isn’t the only reason teens don’t report bullying.
In March, Alamo Heights ISD counselor Lisa Lucas told the Rivard Report that teens often think they can handle bullying or peer pressure. Even as it escalates, teens are protective of their social world and often resent the intervention of adults, Lucas said.
David’s Legacy Foundation, founded by the Molak family, is also working on awareness campaigns to change the culture of secrecy and spitefulness facilitated by personal digital devices. Students will be asked to pledge not to use their cell phones or computers "as weapons," Menéndez said.
A focus on cyberbullying, which can affect teens in any socioeconomic group, could lead to a larger conversation on ways to better address students' emotional, physical, and social well-being within a school setting.