A state lawmaker filed a bill for the 2017 legislative session inspired by a Texas teenager who committed suicide after being bullied online.
The proposed bill aims to find and punish bullies who hide behind an online profile. It would make it a criminal misdemeanor to cyberbully someone under 18. It would also require schools to work with law enforcement to help identify a bully even if the harassment happens off-campus.
Rape and death threats were aimed at a 16-year-old with a disability. It was 2013, and Keri Riddell pushed to get to the bottom of the anonymous texts to her daughter, Shea.
Initially, Riddell says the school was hesitant to get involved since they weren’t convinced it was happening on campus. Eventually, after a campaign called "I'm with Shea,” Riddell says a texting app company helped police trace the IP address to another girl at the same school.
“The children doing the anonymous bullying, usually there's something going on in that home,” said Riddell. And we need to worry just as much about that child too.”
In the three years since, Shea has continued her schooling, bully-free. But other kids haven't been as fortunate.
In San Antonio, a 16-year-old named David Molak took his life in January. His parents say he'd been tormented by bullies that attacked him online.
“They harassed him, they threatened him and took him to a point where he felt there was no more hope,” Matt Molak, David’s father said.
The Molak family was in Austin on Monday to unveil “David’s Law,” a proposal that would require schools to work with law enforcement to identify bullies even if harassment happened off school grounds. The bill would also make it a misdemeanor to electronically bully anyone under the age of 18. It also pushes the use of subpoenas to track bullying.
“I'm not looking to create a pipeline of school to jail,” said State Senator Jose Menendez. “I want to nip the bullying in the bud, find out why and give them the understanding that they have to cease and desist the behavior.”
“We can't dismiss this problem as children being children. We can't dismiss it as simply telling our children to turn off their smartphones, computers and moving on, building up thin skin,” said State Rep. Ina Minjarez. “This is an epidemic facing our country, not just the state of Texas.”
When Shea's story made headlines, classmates rallied around her. But Riddell worries about other kids who suffer silently.
“It can be done. We have to cut the chains, cut the barriers when it comes to children,” Riddell said. “We can't have any more of these children take their lives.”
David Molak's dad insists the proposed law is necessary to update harassment laws currently in the books. He says this kind of bullying isn't the same as what we may have experienced growing up. The big difference is the bullying now can follow kids home, not providing them any escape.