New law addresses cyberbullying, allows districts to enforce anti-bullying policies beyond school

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By Rachel Madison

When David’s Law (Senate Bill 179) was signed into law following the 85th Texas Legislative Session, it amended the Texas Education Code to better define cyberbullying, and require school districts to make changes to protect students from harassment.

David’s Law, which took effect at the start of the current academic year, encompasses any form of bullying that takes place via an electronic communication device or Internet-based communication tool, such as a cell phone, computer, social media app, text messaging or instant messaging.

In the Liberty Hill Independent School District, several anti-bullying measures were already in place, but the new law allowed the district to expand on what it was already doing, said LHISD Assistant Superintendent Dr. Toni Hicks.

“The processes we’ve had in our district didn’t change as a result of David’s Law,” she said. “What David’s Law did is give us a wider reach so we could be more influential with our educational strategies to help kids make better decisions. Our processes across the district were already in place. As soon as SB 179 came about, we visited with our principals over the summer and reviewed [our policies].”

Hicks added that as part of that training provided to principals, assistant principals and counselors, the district made sure to clarify what administration should do if a bullying incident is reported.

LHISD Assistant Superintendent Chad Pirtle said those procedures essentially walk an administrator through the process, from contacting parents, gathering witnesses and noting the victim/offender relationship, as well as dates, times and locations of the incidents and a description of what happened.

“There are a lot of things on the intake form that administrators use to do their investigation,” Pirtle said. “We’ve had that procedure in place. What David’s Law did is in terms of our incident intake form, it made us come back to it and just review it again and get refreshed on it.”

David’s Law is named after 16-year-old David Molak, a high school student from San Antonio who took his own life in January 2016 after being relentlessly cyberbullied via text messages and social media by a group of students. A foundation, called David’s Legacy Foundation, was created in his honor and is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to ending cyber-assisted bullying by educating communities about the harmful effects of cyber abuse, providing support for bullying victims, promoting kindness, and supporting legislation that prohibits the cyberbullying of minors. The foundation was instrumental in getting David’s Law passed.

The law went into effect Sept. 1, 2017, and required changes such as including cyberbullying in district bullying policies, notifying a child’s parents if he or she is a victim or alleged bully, and provides for schools to collaborate with law enforcement when serious cyberbullying situations arise.

Under David’s Law, Texas public schools have the authority to address cyberbullying that occurs off-campus. This is one of the most significant aspects of David’s Law because this was not authorized before. Now, cyberbullying that occurs off school property or outside of a school-sponsored activity can still be punishable by the school district if that bullying interferes with a student’s educational opportunities or disrupts the operation of a classroom, school or school-sponsored activity.

The law still covers bullying that occurs on school property or on a publicly- or privately-owned school bus or vehicle being used for transportation of students to or from school or a school-sponsored activity.

“A lot of times things that happen outside of school impacts the school day,” Hicks said. “This change gives us an opportunity to help students resolve conflict that happens outside of school. It gives us the opportunity to really help kids by saying, ‘Even in your informal settings, these are some ways you need to conduct yourself and handle yourself.’ Education is now going beyond just the schoolhouse.”

Schools are now also required to notify a bullying victim’s parents of a bullying incident within three business days after the incident is reported and must notify the parents of an aggressor within a reasonable amount of time.

“The great thing about our district is we have very involved parents,” Hicks said. “More often than not when we call parents to talk about incidents that happen, they want to be involved in the process to help their kids make better decisions.”

The new law also provides for anonymous reporting for students.

Pirtle said every campus in LHISD has an “anonymous tip line.” Those tip lines can be accessed by searching “anonymous tips” on the LHISD website at www.libertyhill.txed.net.

“The tip doesn’t necessarily have to be anonymous because you can put your name if you want to, but it’s not a required field,” he said. “Any student, parent or community member can go in and leave an anonymous tip and that tip will go to the campus administration of the school they select. We started with implementing that at the secondary levels and then the elementary level was implemented a little later on.”

LHISD’s “anonymous tip line” is monitored between the hours of 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on school days. Reports submitted outside of those hours or during holidays are responded to during the following normally scheduled school day.

Under the law, schools now also have the ability to expel students who engage in very serious bullying, which includes encouraging another student to commit suicide, inciting violence against another student or releasing indecent photos of another student.

“We’re fortunate to not have had to deal with that at this point,” Pirtle said. “Encouraging someone to do something so significant is a very serious thing and if it does happen [that student] would have very serious consequences. There’s no place for that in our schools or anywhere.”

David’s Law also authorizes school principals to report certain incidents of bullying to local law enforcement and provides protection from liability for doing so. They may make a report of certain bullying that rises to the level of being a crime to any school district police department or the police department of the municipality in which the school is located.

Pirtle said he’s not aware of any circumstances so far this school year that have had to be reported to law enforcement. He said the change under the new law didn’t necessarily change anything for the district, though.

“We’re going to take care of serious situations,” he said. “If we need to call law enforcement, we’ll call law enforcement.”

Under the law, there are also provisions to promote mental health education, including education about the effects of grief and trauma on a student’s mental health and learning.

In addition, the role of school counselors was also expanded to include mediating interpersonal conflicts among students, including accusations of bullying. Counselors must serve as impartial, non-reporting resources for interpersonal conflicts and discord involving two or more students.

“Our district case manager provides [mental health] training to our counselors,” Hicks said. “She as well as our school counselors also work closely with Amy Callaway, [outreach coordinator for the Williamson County Children’s Advocacy Center]. She comes in every year and shares with our campus staff, administrators and counselors about the resources out there and ways we can help our kids with mental health. We made a shift this school year in recognizing the need for our counselors to have more time to work with our kids on processing emotions. In years past, our counselors have been responsible for overseeing testing [components], so we shifted that to the campus administrators, so counselors could focus more on the kids and helping them.”

The new law also requires the Texas Education Agency to maintain a website with resources related to student mental health needs. That site is www.tea.texas.gov/Texas_Schools/Safe_and_Healthy_Schools/Coordinated_School_Health/Counseling_and_Mental_Health_Services_of_the_Coordinated_School_Health_Model/.

David’s Law also made some changes to Texas’ civil code. The law now makes it easier to obtain an injunction from a Texas court to prevent continual cyberbullying against a student. Victims are also able to have the court issue an injunction against their cyberbully’s parents, requiring the parents to take action to stop their child from cyberbullying. The Texas Supreme Court has also made easy-to-use forms available to the public to allow parents to obtain an injunction against ongoing cyberbullying of their children without the need for hiring a lawyer, according to David’s Legacy Foundation.

The Texas criminal code was also changed after the passage of David’s Law. The definitions in the harassment provisions of Texas criminal laws were modernized to better include the current ways cyberbullies attack victims through smart phones and social media. Cyber-harassment against a child that includes suicide baiting or the violation of an injunction against cyberbullying will be a much more serious criminal offense than before, up to a Class A Misdemeanor, according to David’s Legacy Foundation.

Pirtle said he doesn’t believe cyberbullying to be a major concern in LHISD, but he does acknowledge that bullying occurs in Liberty Hill schools.

“Are there occurrences that happen throughout a school year when you put 4,100 students together?” he said. “Yes. Things happen. But the data doesn’t support that it’s a systematic concern. We would just ask from the community, parents and students, that if you know of something that’s going on, report it. Speak up, even if it’s not happening to you, because we can’t help if we don’t know about it. Our goal is for kids to feel safe and comfortable going to school.”

On April 19, parents are invited to attend a LHISD Parent Empowerment event, titled “Keeping Your Kids Safe: Social Media’s Impact on Our Youth” will be held at 5:30 p.m. at Liberty Hill High School’s Performing Arts Center. This event will address several aspects of keeping students who use social media safe, including cyberbullying. The event is hosted by LHISD, the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce, The Liberty Hill Independent and the Liberty Hill Police Department.

Rachel@LHIndepenent.com

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