It’s been more than two weeks since David Molak took his own life at age 16, following struggles brought about by cyberbullies. Since then, Molak’s family, friends and classmates have shined a light on the issues of cyberbullying and teenage suicide.
State Sen. José Menéndez (District 26) is taking the lead in pushing for new anti-cyberbullying legislation – a bill he is calling David’s Law – in the next legislative session. Menéndez has organized a community workshop Thursday night to focus on ways families can combat cyberbullying.
In the aftermath of Molak’s death, members of the Alamo Heights community, where David’s family lives and where he attended public schools until last year, have come together to celebrate David’s life and grieve his untimely death.
The leaders of the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas (CBCST), a nonprofit organization based at 205. W. Olmos Dr., joined a group of 25 district employees and parents at Alamo Heights Junior School Wednesday evening for what can be described as a step forward in the community grieving process.
The evening was part of “Breaking the Silence,” a continuing series of forums organized by the Alamo Heights Independent School District (AHISD). The series is meant to encourage district residents to learn how to help students of all ages work through sensitive issues they might otherwise internalize and not share or seek help to overcome. A “Breaking the Silence” session was already scheduled this week; district officials invited members of the public to take part in the grieving process after David’s suicide.
“I’m not even going to pretend that I’m not scared,” AHISD Wellness Coordinator Michelli Ramon said at the start of the program.
Molak’s death has reverberated through Alamo Heights and beyond and has served to cause people throughout the city to ponder his death, his family’s loss, and what it says about the sometimes alienating forces young people who are not yet adults face with peers.
David’s family arranged for his transfer out of Alamo Heights to enroll as a sophomore at the San Antonio Christian School. Despite that move, the cyberbullying followed Molak, according to family members. Social media, of course, is not bounded by school districts.
Before the Wednesday gathering, Ramon said the tightly-knit nature of Alamo Heights has only amplified people’s emotions and the grief.
“Emotions have been overwhelming. We’ve had students die before, but the way David died by suicide, the brutality of what led up to it, it’s different,” she said.
Leslie Wood has learned to grieve after the loss of a loved one. After her husband died, Wood turned to the Children’s Bereavement Center as she and her young children struggled to cope with their loss. Wood was so moved by the center’s support that she decided to go to work there, and now serves as the center’s outreach coordinator.
Wood told those gathered at the junior school that life is short, and if people can work together to help a child cope with a traumatic experience, or even the daily struggles of adolescence, it can make a difference. A child’s grief is different than an adult’s grief, she said, and thus requires a different understanding.
Bereavement triggers a period of insecurity for a child or teenager, who might feel his or her life is disrupted and uncertain, and wonder if the instability will end one day. Parents should stay attuned to their own children’s grief as they seek a return to normalcy in school and their own social lives.
“Children are the experts in their grief. Help them find and express their perspective on the death and the adjustments in their lives,” Wood said.
Her colleague, Tami Logsdon, the center’s program director, said the adult – parent, caretaker, teacher – can help support the coping child by exhibiting a healthy grieving model and openly acknowledging his or her own feelings and need to heal.
“Children do better when their parents or caretakers are doing better,” she added.
When a grieving child or teen approaches to talk, Logsdon said, simply listen and let the person express themselves. That expression might come in the form of journaling, writing poetry, painting, performing a rap song, or even making a YouTube video.
After the center’s presentation, Ramon asked what would happen to spontaneous memorials erected by students at school. Logsdon said it’s fine for the memorial to remain for a while, but school administrators should work with organizers and explain that any memorials would come down after a short period of time. Ramon said Molak’s classroom desk might stay empty awhile, which Logsdon said was an appropriate tribute.
Alamo Heights students paid tribute to David by wearing silver, white and black to a Mules basketball game Tuesday night, a reference to Molak’s love for the San Antonio Spurs. Students reportedly were planning to wear Spurs colors to school later this week.
For younger children who learn about Molak’s suicide, it could be challenging for the parent or caretaker to explain why such tragedies occur. Theresa Powers, middle school head at Monte Vista-based Keystone School, struggled to answer questions posed by her son, a third-grader at Woodridge Elementary School.
“I told (my son) that (Molak) was dead, but I couldn’t tell him he had hung himself,” Powers told Logsdon and Wood. Logsdon replied the parent or caretaker will have to offer an age-appropriate response to such questions. While there is no need for details, it is better for the adult to give a thoughtful explanation rather than let the child learn about the event from peers or distorted versions of the truth.
“The truth is a good statement,” Logsdon said. When children or teenagers ask what caused David’s suicide, Ramos said it can be “dangerous” to point to any one specific thing.
“I say it’s really many things that led up to it,” she said.
The program ended with the lighting of five candles, each one symbolizing a wish, according to the center’s Executive Director Marian Sokol. Those wishes included a remembrance for David “and other children in the community who have died too soon,” and for youngsters struggling with the challenges of growing up.
On Jan. 11, Superintendent Kevin Brown posted a letter to the community addressing Molak’s death on the district’s website. He acknowledged that the district learned in October of two incidents of bullying that involved David – one on campus, the other off campus. Brown wrote the “situation was investigated promptly” and disciplinary action was taken, adding that “… consequences were given to some, including removal from campus.”
Brown, who attended the program, declined to provide more information about the incidents or the suspension, citing federal law that protects students and their identity. Brown said he has not received any information from San Antonio police regarding the department’s investigation into the cyberbullying David endured before his death. Brown said the school district will be ready to act if the investigation concludes further disciplinary action is warranted.
“We’ll see whatever the facts are out there,” he added.
Meanwhile, Molak’s friends, such as AHHS junior Faith Miller, are learning to cope. She was unable to attend the Wednesday program, but she recalled first meeting David in geometry class.
“He liked to mess around. He didn’t really pay attention,” she recalled with a laugh. Through mutual friends, Miller maintained a casual friendship with Molak. She didn’t witness the bullying that Molak suffered.
“But he would tell me later about how they made fun of him, called him names,” she said. Miller noted that Molak had a girlfriend and the relationship brought him happiness, but even then he was prone to sadness and anxiety.
There have been media accounts citing friends and family, that the principal bully in a group of four has been still trying to spite Molak. The same week Molak died and then was laid to rest, AHHS students wore Spurs colors to class in his memory – all but the main bully, who reportedly wore neon colors.
Miller recalled seeing the main bully that day: “I wondered why he did that. He almost seemed content with it all, like he was relieved.” She added that life, nowadays, is a struggle for her and others who miss Molak.
It’s difficult to separate the facts from rumors swirling through the schools and community in the wake of Molak’s suicide. This much is certain: David’s death has left an open wound in Alamo Heights, one that will not heal easily or quickly.
“Everyone is feeling lost, like they don’t know how to react,” Miller said. “We’re just remembering him the best we can in our lives.”
*Top image: AHISD Superintendent Kevin Brown hugs Director of Programs at the Children’s Bereavement Center Tami Logsdon. Photo by Scott Ball.