Last January, 9-year-old Montana Lance hanged himself in the nurse's bathroom at his Dallas-area elementary school. After he told his teachers that he was being bullied, his father told the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, they called him a tattletale.
At the hearing on a trio of anti-bullying bills, Montana's parents, along with the relatives of Asher Brown and Jon Carmichael, who were both 13 when they committed suicide after being picked on by classmates, asked lawmakers to fix a system they say failed their children.
"We did everything we could, we followed the rules, and the protocols," said David Truong, Asher's stepfather, "... but he is still dead."
Witnesses told the lawmakers that the advent of texting, emails, and social networking has left school officials without the means to properly protect students from bullying. Monty Exter, representing the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said his organization's members were "imploring" the Legislature to give them the tools to address the problem.
“We've been working on this bill for a very long time,” he said. “I want to echo that we certainly hope something goes forward this time. If something went forward last time, we wouldn't have to hear these horror stories.”
All three bills, written by Sens. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; John Whitmire, D-Houston; and Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and left pending in committee, add a definition of cyberbullying to existing laws. Whitmire's SB 205 requires districts to develop specific policies to prevent and investigate aggressive behavior from students. It also includes a provision that holds district officials accountable for failing to address reports of bullying.
SB 242 by Davis contains similar requirements that school districts adopt anti-bullying policies and reporting procedures. But it adds a provision that expands the definition of bullying to include incidents that occur off-campus when it affects the school environment or when it interferes with a student's education. It also would allow school officials to transfer bullies, rather than the victim, as is the current practice, to another campus.
The ACLU of Texas, which supports SB 205 because it strengthens current laws through enforcement, testified against Davis' bill. Attorney Manuel Quinto-Pozos, said that while his organization "has long advocated for victims of bullying" and believes it is a "critical problem," Davis' bill is not the right solution, because it would allow schools to target off-campus behavior in a manner that violates the First Amendment and invades the constitutional rights of parents to raise children as they see fit.
The constitutional argument did not move Davis, who said, "If we sit back and hide too carefully behind the protections of the First Amendment, we may miss an opportunity to save a child's life.”