David Molak had been harassed online by classmates who mocked his appearance and threatened physical violence. After months of cyberbullying, the 16-year-old Alamo Heights High School student took his own life in January 2016.
His parents created David’s Legacy, a foundation aimed at raising awareness about cyberbullying and suicide. And now the San Antonio family is working with a state senator on a bill to make cyberbullying a crime in Texas when it leads to injury or suicide and the victim is a minor.
His father said David, the youngest of three siblings, grew up in a different technological world than their middle child, who is only five years older.
“We had MySpace and Facebook with our middle child; they didn’t have a lot of these anonymous apps ... part of the bill addresses that,” Matt Molak said.
Molak was referring to Senate Bill 179, filed by Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. The senator worked closely with the Molaks when crafting the legislation he dubbed "David's Law."
Menéndez said he hopes the measure will curb the rise in teen suicide. The bill classifies cyberbullying as a misdemeanor, allows courts to issue subpoenas to unmask people who anonymously harass minors online and requires public schools to report and intervene in any suspected cyberbullying cases. It also allows victims to sue cyberbullies’ parents if the parents could have intervened but didn't.
The bill was left pending in committee Thursday.
Lawmakers added the term “cyberbullying” to the Texas Education Code in 2011, tucking it under the “bullying” umbrella, but they didn't create any legal punishment for cyberbullying — instead requiring school districts to develop their own policies to prevent and intervene in bullying and cyberbullying.
Some of SB 179's most vocal critics argue that prevention works better than punishment. Josette Saxton, mental health policy director of Texans Care for Children, testified Thursday that criminalizing cyberbullying would be counterproductive for children who aren’t fully developed yet.
Recent additions to SB 179 require each school district’s board of trustees to create a mental health plan that addresses suicide prevention and bullying, but it still allows schools to move or expel students if they bully minors. Saxton said research shows that expelling bullies or using other exclusionary disciplinary actions is less effective than prevention programs.
“Nobody needs to go through that horrendous, horrendous stuff we heard about, but if we really want to make a difference, we don’t wait until we have 50 kids already on social media saying these things,” Saxton said. “We need to make sure we prevent the kids from ever getting there.”
Menéndez said prevention is important, but it’s not the entire solution.
“You’re still going to have people who ignore the law,” Menéndez said. “Prevention and early intervention start at a young age. That’s that group of kids you teach, 'This is the kind of cyber-citizen you should be.' But we still have a myriad of high and middle school schoolers who think it’s cool to come up with best ‘burn’ or ‘put down.’ I’m dealing with a group of kids who are past early prevention and intervention.”
Association of Texas Professional Educators President Julleen Bottoms, who teaches elementary school technology applications at Navarro Elementary in Corsicana, said she emphasizes safe internet use and how to deal with issues like cyberbullying through kid-friendly websites such as NetSmartz Kids and Common Sense Media.
“Honestly, it’s something that should be taught every year,” Bottoms said. “Every grade level, in some way ... we have to teach our children, whatever their age, that they have choices to make and whatever choices they make have consequences and they need to be responsible and held responsible for their actions."
Bottoms said she supports SB 179, even though she said the Legislature has a habit of putting more responsibility on schools without appropriating more money.
“They give us mandates and then they don’t fund them,” Bottoms said. “But we, the adults, still need to step up and find ways to turn over the information we have, if we suspect someone of cyberbullying."
Menéndez said that prevention and reporting mandates do not add costs to public schools.
Even though he’s been working hard with Menéndez and others, Matt Molak knows the bill isn't guaranteed to pass.
“Gosh, that would be a sad day but ... the way the process is set up, your chances of success are slim,” Molak said.
Menéndez remains steadfast.
“I don’t want another family to deal with heartbreak,” Menéndez said. “This thing’s an epidemic right now, and I think we need to make a strong statement.”
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described lawmakers' plans for the state budget.