By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News
On June 9, 2017, the State of Texas passed “David’s Law,” legislation meant to address cyberbullying.
The law was inspired by the death of David Molak, a San Antonio sophomore, who took his own life as the result of relentless cyberbullying according to his family.
Motivated by grief and the desire to prevent more undue suffering, the family lobbied countless lawmakers, resulting in the new law.
The legislation makes a number of changes to existing bullying laws, and includes a laundry list of new reporting, prevention and mediation requirements for school districts. (See sidebar.)
As school began in the fall of 2017, Leander Independent School District sent an email to parents making them aware of the new law and its impact on students.
LISD teachers and counselors were educated about the law’s new requirement during back-to-school training in August 2017.
Steve Clark, director of counseling services for LISD, does not think that the law will significantly impact LISD students and staff, due especially to an existing emphasis on good citizenship.
“In our guiding documents, many of the topics they discuss are not about academics. They’re more about citizenship and creating good post-secondary citizens,” said Clark.
Starting early, “we try to teach, in a proactive way, to build citizenship beginning in our elementary and on through high school,” including digital communications as part of the district’s BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) initiative.
In order to adhere to the law’s reporting requirements, LISD now participates in the Anonymous Alerts program, which allows parents, students or members of the community to report any concerning behaviour anonymously. Reports can be made at www.anonymousalerts.com/leanderisd.
In 2017, the district also purchased a K-5 program called Second Step, a social skills learning curriculum that helps to teach empathy. While recognizing the importance of teaching these skills at a young age, LISD is also working to identify similar middle and high school programs.
The good news is, LISD as a whole has seen a substantial drop in the number of reported bullying cases, down to 23 in the 2016-17 school year versus 62 in 2011-12.
There were, however, seven reported cases of bullying, nearly a third of the district’s total, at Four Points area schools during the 2016-17 school year. (LISD the does not track cyberbullying events separate from bullying.)
Clark sees the new law as beneficial to both students and counselors in one unexpected way. “I think the good thing about this new law, it really removed (counselors) from dealing with the crime aspect of it… The counselor would not be the person to report it to law enforcement… They can just be neutral so they can provide services to either party,” whether the one being bullied or the one bullying.
Rather than thinking of kids engaging in bullying behaviors as problem students, Clark reminds parents that these can also simply be students with problems.
“Student behavior is often, to me, a function of a need. We try to be preventative… and serve all of our students,” Clark said.
He also knows that technology creates many opportunities for misunderstanding.
“Many times, all of us — adults, students and kids — we’re behind a screen and it’s often interpreted the wrong way… which may end up upsetting the person. Because they read it in a tone that’s not conveyed through this text,” Clark said.
“Devices are not going away… We try to teach (students) the proper way to use them,” he added.
Still he acknowledges that bullying can happen, and hopes parents will work with schools to work toward the best possible solutions for everyone involved.
“I always encourage parents to work with the campus as much as possible. Reach out and try to talk or meet in person if possible… I think once you start that open dialogue at the campus level, most issues can be resolved at the campus level,” Clark said.
What is David’s Law?
David’s Law provides a number of new requirements for school districts when students report cyberbulling, including potential criminal charges. Below is a summary of the law, taken from www.DavidsLegacy.org, founded by David Molak’s family after his suicide reportedly due to cyberbullying.
How does LISD define bullying?
“Bullying” means engaging 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 and that: 1.) has the effect or will have the effect of physically harming a student, damaging a student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to the student’s person or of damage to the student’s property; or 2.) is sufficiently severe, persistent and pervasive enough that the action or threat creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for a student.
Conduct described in the definition of “bullying” is considered bullying if the conduct: 1.) exploits an imbalance of power between the student perpetrator and the student victim through written or verbal expression or physical conduct; and 2.) interferes with a student’s education or substantially disrupts the operation of a school. This definition applies to student-on-student behavior only.
Under David’s Law, Texas public schools will have the authority to address cyberbullying that occurs off-campus. Schools will be required to notify a bullying victim’s parents of a bullying incident within three business days after the incident is reported and must notify the parents of an aggressor within a reasonable amount of time. School procedures for reporting bullying incidents must include anonymous reporting for students. Schools will be able to expel students who engage in very serious bullying. This includes bullying that (i) encourages another student to commit suicide (i.e., suicide baiting), (ii) incites violence against another student, or (iii) involves releasing indecent photos of another student. Strong protections from civil or criminal liabilities will be given to schools and school personnel who report criminal bullying to law enforcement officials. There will be new provisions in the law to promote mental health education, including education about the effects of grief and trauma on a student’s mental health and learning. The role of school counselors will be expanded to include mediating interpersonal conflicts among students, including accusations of bullying.
David’s Law will make it easier to obtain an injunction (similar to a protective order) from a Texas court to prevent continual cyberbullying against a student. Victims will be able to have the court issue an injunction against not only the cyberbully, but also against the cyberbully’s parents, requiring those parents to take action to stop their child from cyberbullying. The Texas Supreme Court’s office will make easy-to-use forms available to the general public to allow parents to obtain an injunction against ongoing cyberbullying of their children without the need for hiring a lawyer.
The definitions in the harassment provisions of Texas criminal laws will be modernized to better include the current ways cyberbullies attack victims through smart phones and social media. Cyber-harassment against a child that includes suicide baiting or the violation of an injunction against cyberbullying will be a much more serious criminal offense than before, up to Class A Misdemeanor.