Bullying in Texas Schools
A look at a law established to help victims.
Written by Ellen G. Patterson
Anyone who has been a victim of bullying can attest to the damage it can cause. Bullying victims can harbor their wounds for many years, and the bullying perpetrators can continue to foster abusive relationships well into their adult lives. Citizens and lawmakers in Texas have been actively working in recent years to combat bullying in Texas schools.
Bullying has been defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others have serious, lasting problems.1 Texas lawmakers responded to bullying in schools by passing David’s Law, also known as Senate Bill 179, to combat bullying and cyberbullying among school-aged children. The effort to pass the initial bill was led by a mother and father, Maurine and Matt Molak, who were determined that no other child in Texas should have to suffer as did their son, David. Drafted in partnership with Sen. José Menéndez, passed by the 85th Texas Legislature, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 9, 2017, and effective September 1, 2017, David’s Law provides tools for parents, teachers, and school districts to stop bullying in Texas schools.
The Molak family suffered a loss no family should have to endure. David, the Molaks’ son, died by suicide after being bullied incessantly and unrelentingly, primarily on social media. When the problems first surfaced and the Molaks complained to the school, officials responded that there was nothing they could do, even though there were so many kids involved with the online name-calling and threats. No laws were in place at that time addressing cyberbullying. After the Molaks moved David to a different school, the cyberbullying persisted. Even though David did not have social media, as his parents had taken all his social media accounts down, he still knew it was happening. After the tragedy of their son’s suicide, the Molaks teamed up with Menéndez, of San Antonio, to formulate legislation to protect Texas children. “[W]e had to change the law to keep up with technology,” Maurine Molak told the Waco-Tribune Herald.2
The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2017 that “about 20 percent of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied at school during the year. Of students ages 12-18, about 13 percent reported being the subject of rumors; 13 percent reported being made fun of, called names, or insulted; 5 percent reported being pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on; and 5 percent reported being excluded from activities on purpose.” The report added that “4 percent of students reported being threatened with harm, 2 percent reported that others tried to make them do things they did not want to do, and 1 percent reported that their property was destroyed by others on purpose.”3
Children who have been bullied may suffer changed personalities, withdrawal from activities, depression, loss of confidence, fearfulness for life or property, loss of ambitious drive, physical illness or psychosomatic symptoms, stress, and loss of purpose. Telltale signs of bullying may include unkempt hair and clothing; listlessness; signs of stress; unexplainable injuries; lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry; frequent headaches or stomachaches; and changes in eating habits, such as suddenly skipping meals or binge eating.4 Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch, or they may experience difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares, declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, not wanting to go to school, sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations, feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem, and self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide. It is possible that bullying victims can, themselves, become perpetrators. Children who witness adults mistreating each other can be damaged, as they ultimately are taught, wrongly, that bullying others is the answer to their own feelings of frustration and inadequacy.
While all states have criminal laws that apply to bullying, not all have special statutes that apply to cyberbullying or bullying that takes place outside of school. Unfortunately, no federal law specifically applies to bullying.5 Texas’ David’s Law “provides for schools to collaborate with law enforcement when serious or life-threatening cyberbullying situations arise” and “encourages schools to invest in counseling and rehabilitation services for both victims and aggressors of bullying.”6 David’s Law amends the Texas Education Code provisions on bullying to better define “cyberbullying” and to expand public schools’ authority over off-campus cyberbullying. It requires a school district board of trustees to adopt a policy that mandates notice of an incident of bullying to a parent or guardian of an alleged victim on or before the third business day after the date the incident is reported, as well as notice to the parent or guardian of the alleged bully within a reasonable time. The law also allows school districts to establish a districtwide policy related to bullying prevention and mediation that specifies the placement in a disciplinary alternative education program or expulsion of students for certain particularly serious bullying behavior and that spells out the procedures that school principals may use to report behaviors to local law enforcement.
Because bullying is a mental health issue, the law provides continuing education requirements for classroom teachers and principals to include instruction related to grief-informed and trauma-informed strategies, requires the Texas Education Agency to maintain a website with resources related to student mental health needs, and amends the Texas Health and Safety Code to expand the list of certain procedures that school districts may develop. Finally, David’s Law amends the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code to specify relief for cyberbullying of a child and requires that the Texas Supreme Court, as the court deems appropriate, promulgate forms for use in an application for injunctive relief in suits relating to cyberbullying, while also amending the Texas Penal Code to provide that, depending upon the severity of the bullying, a first offense can be punishable up to a criminal Class A misdemeanor.7
The Molaks’ efforts are already being felt: “Parents have reached out and said that David’s Law saved their child’s life,” Maurine told the Waco-Tribune Herald.8 Further, initiatives introduced and passed in Texas’ 86th Legislature, and included in Senate Bill 11 and House Bill 18, mandate digital classroom citizenship curriculum, spelling out appropriate, responsible online digital behavior; suicide prevention measures; and an expansion of school reporting requirements for bullying and harassment incidents.9 As of mid-September 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is showing the rates of cyberbullying and bullying have increased nationally; however, they have decreased in Texas by 2.5% and 4.5% respectively in the years since the passing of David’s Law. The attempted suicide rates in Texas have also decreased; however, they are still higher than the national average.10 Unfortunately, cyberbullying has been on the uptick since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to reports.11
As a lawyer with a potential client who has retained you to react to a bullying situation in a school, there are resources available. The Don’t Bully Me Project, sponsored by David’s Legacy Foundation, has volunteer lawyers with pilot projects in several major Texas cities, including El Paso, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston, who are implementing tools made possible by David’s Law.12 These tools include: legal action through cease and desist letters to parents of bullies and civil lawsuits against the bullies and their parents and court assistance in unmasking the identity of cyberbullies so that they may be confronted.
Anyone may respond to an incident by calling 911 if there has been a crime or someone is at immediate risk of harm. If someone is feeling hopeless, helpless, or thinking of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline online or 800-273-TALK (8255) is available. “The toll-free call goes to the nearest crisis center in [its] national network. These centers provide 24-hour crisis counseling and mental health referrals.”13 For school-related incidents, contact the teacher, school counselor, school principal, school superintendent, or the state Department of Education. If the school district is not adequately addressing the bullying, contact the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights or the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.
Through awareness, steadfast commitment, and pursuing our society’s highest ideals, people can work together to eliminate bullying in Texas schools.TBJ
The author would like to give special recognition to Maurine Molak for her assistance in drafting this article.
ELLEN G. PATTERSON
is a solo practitioner attorney in San Antonio specializing in estate planning, guardianship, probate, and elder law.