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Cyberbullying Laws: How Texas’s New “David’s Law” Can Impact Schools

Criminal Law Blog by The Law Office of Greg Tsioros

Cyberbullying Laws: How Texas’s New “David’s Law” Can Impact Schools

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Cyberbullying is an epidemic throughout the country. It’s a relatively new phenomenon, but one that’s turned into a significant threat to today’s young people. David’s Law is named for David Molak, a 16-year-old student with leukemia who was harassed by fellow classmates. His physical appearance was mocked. He was threatened with physical violence. In early 2016, David succumbed to social pressure and took his own life.

David’s grief-stricken family worked with Senator José Menéndez of San Antonio to make cyberbullies accountable when online harassment leads to injury or suicide of a minor. The recently signed law, called “David’s Law,” hopes to stem the rising tide of teen suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates among young adults and teens are at a historical high.

The Molak family established David’s Legacy Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that seeks to end cyberbullying through education about the negative effects of cyber-abuse.

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What is David’s Law?

David’s Law, Senate Bill 179 (SB 179), was passed by the Texas House of Representatives and the Texas State Senate in May 2017. Governor Greg Abbott signed the law on June 9, 2017. It will take effect September 1, 2017.

What is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying was added to the Texas Education Code (2011) but lawmakers didn’t add legal punishments for cyberbullies until the passage of David’s Law. Until now, Texas school districts were left to develop policies to prevent/intervene in cyberbullying or bullying. Simply put, cyberbullying is bullying that occurs online. It may occur on websites, text messages, emails, social media sites, and so on.

Under the Texas Educational Code, bullying is an action that 1) results in a student harming another student, 2) results in a student damaging another student’s property, or 3) places a student in a state of “reasonable fear of harm.”

Any action—including an action that occurs verbally, physically, via electronic communications or in writing—may be considered bullying. When one student creates an environment that causes a peer or other student to experience fear, threatens his or her ability to participate or learn at school, or disrupts the school’s normal functions is also bullying. For instance:

  • If Jared steals Johnny’s smartphone and threatens to break his arm over a period of weeks or months and Johnny’s attendance drops because he’s afraid of Jared, parents and/or school administrators can discipline Jared for bullying.
  • If Jared posts threats to Johnny on Facebook and Jonny is terrified of going to school, Jared may be disciplined for cyberbullying.
How is Cyberbullying Investigated in Texas?

Under SB 179, cyberbullying is a misdemeanor. Undercover investigators will work towards uncovering the identities of individuals posting or threatening others anonymously on the Internet. Once discovered, those accused of cyberbullying may receive subpoenas issued by Texas courts.

By law, schools must report parent and student bullying complaints to law enforcement if they suspect the law is being broken. After law enforcement receives bullying notifications, it may interview parents, students, teachers and staff to gather more information. It may authorize an Internet investigation team to evaluate emails or social media posts.

David’s Law allows criminal charges to be filed when students break the law.

How David’s Law Creates Opportunities to Improve School Policies

David’s Law requires public school intervention and creates many opportunities to improve school policies for the better. If teachers and/or administrators suspect cyberbullying, they must take action. Parents of these cyberbullies may be held accountable if they might have intervened to stop their children but didn’t. Victims’ families have the right to sue bullies’ parents.

Under the law, families of victims have greater opportunity to hold cyberbullies responsible:

  • School districts in Texas must have cyberbullying policies written into district policies. Schools must notify students’ parents if a child is the victim of bullying—or is an alleged aggressor of others.
  • Texas school districts must create anonymous systems to enable students to report threats and bullying behavior.
  • Districts are given increased abilities to investigate bullying that occurs off-campus if such behavior is evidenced in school. The law provides districts with the ability to collaborate with law environment on investigations.
  • Districts have more latitude to expel or discipline students for serious bullying behaviors, such as encouraging another student to attempt or commit suicide.
  • Schools and administrators have more support from law enforcement regarding anonymous cyberbullying. Law enforcement may “unmask” anonymous and threatening cyberbullies on social media.

Under David’s Law, it is a misdemeanor to bully or harass an individual less than age 18 through social media, text messages, apps, websites, social media, or any other means. Victims and aggressors will receive rehabilitation and counseling services.

David’s Law: Prevention and Punishment

Critics of David’s Law express concerns that it’s heavily-weighted towards prevention and less on punishment. However, it’s important to realize that the law demands that every school district in Texas implement a mental health program that specifically targets suicide prevention and cyberbullying behaviors. Bullies’ online anonymity is no longer protected.

According to the mental health policy director at Texans Care for Children, making cyberbullying a crime would be “counterproductive” for young children because these individuals are not fully developed.

On September 1, 2017, cyberbullying is classified as a Class B misdemeanor in Texas, punishable with a maximum $2,000 and a 180-day jail sentence. It may become a Class A misdemeanor if the offender was previously convicted or bullying or if the offender bullied a victim younger than 18 years old with the intention of prompting the victim to injury himself or herself or to commit suicide. A Class A misdemeanor is punishable with a maximum $4,000 fine plus a 12-month jail term. Under the law, a cyberbully may face alternative education or expulsion.

Texas Cyberbullying Laws

Cyberbullying is an extremely serious issue. It affects the health and safety of children in the state of Texas. David’s Law shows that lawmakers in Texas continue to take decisive action about protecting our children.

Connectivity in the classroom has many benefits but, unfortunately, constant access to computers, smartphones, and mobile devices allows cyberbullying to take place, often in complete anonymity. Unfortunately, children from grade school to college may face bullying, harassment, or mistreatment by aggressors.

In years past, bullies used physical force to push, shove, or take belongings from a peer or younger student on the playground. Today, social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook enable cyberbullies to threaten or taunt others. Many young children don’t know how to manage these situations as they escalate. Fear, embarrassment, or shame can prevent the child from telling a teacher or parent about the problem.

Under the law, an individual may be charged with harassment if he or she texts or emails another person with the intention to harass, abuse, annoy or torment him or her to the point that he or she fears for personal or property safety.

Impersonating a student online with the intention to harass or defame him or her is also a serious crime. If convicted of online impersonation, the individual could face felony prosecution.

That’s where the new laws can help. They allow law enforcement to initiate prosecution and to arrest cyberbullies. Any individual engaging in cyberbullying behavior may face criminal charges and severe punishments.

Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Houston

If you have been accused of a cyberbullying or bullying crime, you have the right to hire a criminal defense attorney. A strong legal defense can improve the outcome of your case. Greg Tsioros, a former prosecutor in the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, has the experience to protect your constitutional rights. Contact The Law Office of Greg Tsioros in Houston to schedule an initial case evaluation.

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