The family of 16-year-old David Molak is mourning his death, and thousands of others in the Alamo Heights Independent School District and community are mourning with them, many of whom turned out for Friday morning’s funeral service. Family members blame David’s death, ruled by authorities as a suicide, on Alamo Heights High School cyberbullies who they said didn’t stop their attacks even after the family moved David out of the district into a private school.
More than 1,400 people filled the pews, the overflow rooms, the hallways, and the grounds of Christ Episcopal Church in Monte Vista on Friday to bid farewell to David and show their support for the grieving Molak family. Many of those at David’s memorial service were teachers and students from Alamo Heights High School, where David was a sophomore just before transferring to San Antonio Christian School (SACS) this last fall.
Following the chapel service, members of the Molak family spent nearly two hours greeting and talking with many of the friends, neighbors and schoolmates who came to pay their respects.
Church Rector Patrick Gahan spoke on the family’s behalf as they continued talking with visitors. Gahan was impressed with the show of community unity and strength in the crowd, especially the presence of so many high school students, not all of whom knew David. Students were given the opportunity to skip classes today to attend the service.
“Those kids came dressed appropriately, acting the right way and being very reverent. I was really knocked down by the way they carried themselves,” he said. “They stayed in line to meet the family. What a wonderful testimony to young people.”
Officer Ruben Vasquez with the San Antonio Police Department said his colleagues are investigating the circumstances behind David’s death.
“We don’t have everything in yet. There’s nothing new to report at this time,” Vasquez added Friday. Authorities did say David was found dead in his backyard prior to dawn on Jan. 4. His family initially reported him missing. An SAPD helicopter searched for David, using his cell phone to find him.
Family members have spent this week talking with local media and sharing messages about David via social media, celebrating his life and raising awareness about cyberbullies. David’s oldest brother, Cliff, said the bright, caring young man had struggled over the last eight months. He and police said other students had engaged in a hate campaign against David, mainly via Instagram. The cyberbullying had become so intense that David twice tried to commit suicide, one time swallowing an overdose of over-the-counter medication and another by driving his car into a pole.
David’s parents, Matt and Maurine, intervened and communicated their concerns to school officials. The school suspended one student identified as the primary bully. Kevin Brown, Alamo Heights Independent School District (AHISD) superintendent, said the district is awaiting the outcome of the SAPD’s investigation to determine what other actions it can take in the case of David Molak. Left unexplained is why the student or any of his fellow bullies were allowed to attend school if the attacks continued.
“If there is something related to this at school, we will immediately take the most appropriate action,” Brown said.
But it has been months now since the family first reported the problem. While the district would have had disciplinary measures it could have taken, Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood has been quoted in the media as saying such behavior would be classified only as misdemeanor harassment.
While David did transfer from Alamo Heights to SACS in November, he also was in therapy. Yet, according to family members and police, the bullies did not stop. In a lengthy Facebook post dated Jan. 6, Cliff recalled seeing “the pain in David’s eyes” three days earlier when David was added to a group text only to be “made fun of and kicked out two minutes later.”
“I spoke to (David) right after to comfort him and he didn’t even hear me,” Cliff wrote. “He stared off into the distance for what seemed like an hour. I could feel his pain. It was a tangible pain. He didn’t even have the contact information of any of the eight members who started the group text. It is important to note David had been enduring this sort of abuse for a very long time.”
Cliff hopes his Facebook post and David’s tragic death will open people’s eyes to the very real problem of cyberbullying and the failure of adults at home and at school to hold bullies accountable.
“The households and the school systems are failing. The only way to end the suffering in this nation, whether it be from bullying or discrimination, is not to highlight differences between groups of people, but to focus on the importance of accountability and ultimately character,” Cliff wrote.
Speakers at David’s memorial service spoke of the importance of hope and healing in such a dark time. When David and his brothers, Cliff and Chris, were younger, the Molak family often attended services at Christ Episcopal Church.
“When we first heard about this, we immediately reached out to the family,” Pastor Gahan said. “It was some years ago they had come here. We felt it was our calling just to say, ‘We care about you, how can we love you?’
“With the 1,400 people here today, we tried to speak some hope, that doesn’t mean there has to be darkness. There can be light that comes out of this,” he said. “I’m not being Pollyanna or saying that this isn’t a big deal. It’s a huge deal. What we wanted to do is speak hope to people who are hurting. With all the kids here, we wanted them to leave here thinking this isn’t the end, there’s hope in this world.”
Kevin Brown with AHISD said it has been an extremely difficult week for the school district, and that efforts have been focused on helping students and teachers with the grieving process. He recalled David as a kindergartener in his first day of school.
The athletic, sharp-witted youngster grew up to be an Eagle Scout who loved the Spurs, fantasy football and the outdoors. David even was a founding member of a local gym, The Tribe Strength and Conditioning, where the motto is improving one’s life through fitness and mobility.
According to a message posted by officials at The Tribe on the gym’s website, David relished working out there: “It wasn’t just the coaches who took notice of David’s efforts. Other members were starting to comment on how impressed they were in his commitment, hard work and even his quick-witted humor. David was no longer known as the quiet kid.”
“He was a kind person who cared about others and was compassionate. He was the kind of kid we’d all want to raise,” he added.
Brown said the AHISD has trained staff on matters such as bullying and suicide prevention. There have been anti-bullying programs and activities, and a character education program that covers all grade levels, he said, but many in the community wonder then how the bullying was allowed to continue unstopped.
“These are all important issues. It’s not just cyberbullying but students’ mental and emotional health. It’s about treating each other with kindness and respect,” Brown said. “Our children are growing up in a world where anonymity is a problem. We as a nation have to be a better model on how to treat each other.”
Dr. Thelma Duffey chairs the counseling department at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She’s also the new president of the American Counseling Association (ACA), which is helping to lead a national initiative aimed at combating bullying and interpersonal violence. Additionally, Duffey has her own counseling and psychology practice in Alamo Heights.
Duffey feels it is “absolutely horrifying” what has happened to the Molak family. But, she added, any person is vulnerable to bullying and its emotional effects, especially when a bunch of people gang up on the victim, as what appears to have happened with David. Bullying can be so prolonged and intense that some recipients feel there is no end or comfort in sight.
“People who are bullied can become isolated, even with a supportive, loving family,” she said. “The power of the group — meanness, hate, ridicule and public shame — is tremendous. Anybody can be hurt by this. It’s a horrific form of abuse, especially when it’s done by peers and made public on social media. People can feel so incredibly helpless.”
Duffey said people often find pleasure in inflicting emotional and mental pain on others, that it empowers them or makes them feel connected to like-minded people.
“It’s clearly someone who doesn’t care about their impact on another human being,” she added.
Dr. Steven Pliszka is the psychiatry department chair at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA) where Cliff Molak is a medical student. Pliszka said bullying in its different forms is as old as the human race itself. It’s ingrained in human nature. But social media and its perceived anonymity can have a negative effect on impressionable youngsters.
“Social media also is a way of establishing a pecking order for young social groups,” he said. “Kids post something and get obsessed about how many likes or comments they get. Problem is they aren’t event getting together in person. They’re on their phones and devices, and those who are bullied are made to feel like they’re falling down the social hierarchy.”
Pliszka agreed with Duffey; it’s vital for a child or teenager at risk, in cyberbullying, to have a fully supportive system with family and friends.
“Watch out for non-verbal cues. If someone’s been crying a lot or not enjoying anything, then you’ll want to dig a little deeper and see a counselor,” he said.
Social media outlets themselves should be more involved in encouraging self-regulation and better behavior among users, Pliszka added.
Cliff Molak, on his Facebook post, writes that he now wishes he had heeded the anti-bullying classes and seminars he and classmates attended in primary school. But now is the time to reflect on his brother’s life and to try to help save the lives of others suffering at the hands of cyberbullying.
“The healing needs to start now before we fall even further down into the pits of evil. It is my dream for the healing of this nation to be David’s legacy,” he wrote.
Community members are already responding to Cliff’s clarion call, donating to a GoFundMe campaign, hashtagged #StopTheBullying. The campaign has raised nearly $51,000 in a single day, with a goal of reaching $75,000 to donate to charities that address bullying.
This story was originally published on Friday, Jan. 8, 2015.
*Top image: A hearse arrives at David Molak’s memorial service. Photo by Rachel Chaney.