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

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