Legislature revises laws to address cyberbullying

Texas lawmakers this year revised state laws on bullying and cyberbullying among youth, and school districts began implementing the changes with the new school year.

A new law, SB 179 by Menéndez, is called “David’s Law” in honor of David Molak, a 16-year-old high school student in San Antonio who committed suicide in 2016. Under the law, for the first time, a definition of cyberbullying is added to the statutes, and school districts must expand their bullying policies to address it. The definition includes incidents occurring off school property or outside of school activities if the cyberbullying interferes with a student’s educational opportunities or substantially disrupts a classroom, school, or school activity. The law also requires that district policies include a way for students to make anonymous reports and a procedure to notify parents of alleged victims within three days of an incident.

Supporters of the measures said they would improve schools’ ability to address the rise of cyberbullying without burdening school districts. While parents play an important role in handling bullying, advocates of SB 179 said, the state should do all it can to prevent tragic incidents like David’s and those of other Texas youths who have taken their lives as a result of bullying.  Some critics said prevention, early intervention, and other strategies would be better than punitive measures such as expulsion, while others said the law should go further by giving schools more resources to help prevent bullying.

The law allows public and charter schools to remove students who have engaged in bullying from class and place them in a disciplinary alternative education program. It also allows them to expel students for bullying that encourages suicide, incites violence through group bullying, or releases intimate visual material of a student. Supporters of these provisions said schools need tools to intervene in the most serious cases, including separating the bully from the victim.

SB 179 also increases the criminal penalty for harassment that involves certain types of electronic communications. The punishment increases from a class B misdemeanor (up to 180 days in jail and/or a maximum fine of $2,000) to a class A misdemeanor (up to one year in jail and/or a maximum fine of $4,000) if repeated electronic communications were sent to someone under 18 years old with intent that the receiver commit suicide or self-inflict serious bodily injury. Supporters of the change said it would address gaps in current criminal laws by increasing penalties for the most serious cyberbullying and would update a current offense, not increase criminalization. They also said those subject to the higher penalty would be handled through the juvenile justice system, which is focused on rehabilitation and uses sanctions such as restitution, community service, counseling, and parental intervention. Critics said education and prevention, not criminalization, would better address the problem.

Under the new law, youths or their parents may ask civil courts to address cyberbullying, and courts may issue temporary restraining orders, temporary injunctions, or permanent injunctions to stop it. The orders can prohibit someone from engaging in cyberbullying or compel a parent to take reasonable actions to cause someone younger than 18 to stop.

SB 179 also expands resources to educate students and others on mental health issues, including continuing education for teachers and principals on evidence-based, grief-informed, and trauma-informed strategies to support students’ academic success. The Texas Education Agency must work with other entities to create a website with resources on working with students who have mental health conditions. The new law also revises the list of mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention topics on which the Department of State Health Services, in conjunction with other entities, must provide information for public schools.

By Kellie A. Dworaczyk

Posted in Criminal Justice, Public Education | Tagged , , , ,

Proposed constitutional amendments to go before voters

Voters will consider seven propositions to amend the Texas Constitution in the Nov. 7 election. The propositions were approved for the ballot by the 85th Legislature earlier this year.

Among the issues to be considered by voters are proposals to:

  • provide a homestead exemption for partially donated homes of disabled veterans;
  • revise home equity loan provisions;
  • limit terms for certain appointees of the governor;
  • require court notice to the attorney general of a constitutional challenge to state laws;
  • amend eligibility requirements for sports team charitable raffles;
  • provide a homestead exemption for surviving spouses of certain first responders; and
  • allow banks to hold raffles promoting savings.

The Texas Legislature proposes amendments to the state constitution in joint resolutions, which must be approved by at least a two-thirds vote of the membership of each house. A joint resolution includes the ballot wording of the proposed amendment and a specific election date. The Texas secretary of state conducted a random drawing to assign a number to each proposition for this year’s election.

Constitutional amendments take effect when the official vote canvass confirms statewide majority approval unless a later date is specified. Some amendments are self-enacting, and others required the Legislature to enact “enabling” legislation. If voters reject the amendment, the enabling legislation dependent on it does not take effect.

More information about the proposed amendments for the upcoming election, including ballot language and arguments for and against each measure, can be found in the HRO’s focus report, Constitutional Amendments Proposed for November 2017 Ballot.

By Janet Elliott

Posted in General Government | Tagged ,

Local governments to identify cost of public notices

Under a new Texas law, political subdivisions other than junior college districts will have to include a line item in their budgets showing how much they spend on notices they are required by law to publish in a newspaper. SB 622 by Burton, enacted this year during the regular session of the 85th Legislature, requires the line item to allow a clear comparison between expenditures on statutorily required notices in the proposed budget and actual expenditures for the notices in the preceding year. The new requirement applies to proposed budgets for fiscal years starting on or after January 1, 2018.

Current law requires public notice of meetings, contracts, and certain other activities by political subdivisions to be printed in a local newspaper, but declining circulation of print newspapers in recent years has led to questions about whether this method is still cost effective and sufficient to reach Texans. The Joint Committee on Advertising Public Notices, established through HCR 96 by the 84th Legislature in 2015, heard testimony on notice requirements at a public hearing in August 2016. The committee recommended that print notice requirements remain in place but said the Legislature should continue to study them. According to the committee’s interim report, the true cost of advertising public notices is uncertain, as local governments often aggregate these costs with other advertising expenses.

Supporters of SB 622 said it would promote transparency in government and allow lawmakers to distinguish how much political subdivisions spend on printing statutorily required public notices in newspapers from how much they spend for other advertising. They said it would improve understanding of the true cost of the notices and facilitate further study of the issue.

If providing this information were voluntary instead of mandatory, as proposed by some critics, it would be difficult to ascertain the actual cost of required notices, supporters of the bill said. They said gathering the information could help the Legislature avoid placing an onerous requirement on local governments.

Critics of SB 622 said some smaller political subdivisions that outsource their data processing could incur costs or otherwise have difficulty complying with the bill. They said the Legislature instead should make it voluntary for local governments to itemize the costs of printing public notices in newspapers.

by Mary Beth Schaefer

Posted in General Government | Tagged , , , , , ,

Texas limits out-of-school suspensions for young students

Texas public school students in prekindergarten through grade 2 no longer may be placed in out-of-school suspension for certain disciplinary infractions under a law enacted this year by the 85th Legislature. HB 674 by E. Johnson, which took effect June 12, applies to school districts and open-enrollment charter schools beginning this school year. Under the new law, out-of-school suspensions for up to three school days are still allowed for young students who, while on school property or attending a school-related activity, engage in certain conduct involving weapons, violent assaults, controlled substances, dangerous drugs, or alcohol. Continue reading

Posted in Public Education | Tagged , , ,

Regular session of 85th Texas Legislature reaches midpoint

Capitol_sideAs the Texas Legislature’s regular session approaches the midway point, Interim News Briefs will be going on hiatus until lawmakers have adjourned sine die on May 29. To keep up with developments during the session, please see the House Research Organization’s most recent Daily Floor Report for analysis of legislation being considered by the House. You also may subscribe here to receive notifications by email when a floor report is posted.

For more background on the lawmaking process in the Texas Legislature, please see HRO focus reports, Writing the State Budget and How a Bill Becomes Law. Information on issues that may come before the Legislature this year is available on this site and in Topics for the 85th Legislature.

See you next interim …

Posted in Uncategorized