Cliff Molak is a 24-year-old medical student who speaks carefully and has never shown much interest in publicly discussing his politics. That changed Jan. 4, when his brother David, a 16-year old high school student, took his own life after enduring months of online abuse from fellow students in Alamo Heights. Suddenly, Cliff became a spokesman for his own family and for victims of cyberbullying.
Two days after David’s suicide, Cliff wrote a Facebook post condemning his brother’s tormentors, who he refused to empower by naming. He begged his audience to look for personal accountability and character, rather than the anonymity and casual transactions promoted through modern Internet culture.
The post went viral, and the story was picked up by news organizations in San Antonio and across the world, including The Today Show and The Daily Mail.
David’s death has inspired the Molak family, as well as communities beyond Alamo Heights, to campaign against cyberbullying. These campaigns have been numerous and varied.
State Sen. José Menéndez recently announced that the Senate Criminal Justice Committee intends to study cyberbullying and will attempt to create legislation addressing what Menéndez calls “a crisis in our schools.” Menéndez had previously sent a letter to the committee asking that they take on the subject. Along with Rep. Ina Minjarez, Sen. Menéndez hosted a public forum in late January to gather feedback on a bill that he hoped would be called “David’s Law,” in honor of David Molak.
The committee’s research will focus on permitting schools and law enforcement to collaborate in cyberbullying cases. The committee will also look at ways to give law enforcement the ability to issue subpoenas in cases of hateful, threatening, and harassing rhetoric on social media.
Menéndez also hopes that hearings attached to the investigation will bring awareness to bullying.
“I hope by holding public hearings more parents become aware and talk to their children about bullying,” Menéndez stated in a news release. “It is important that families feel empowered to address bullying and develop solutions at home.”
Cliff has remained vocal on social media since his brother’s death, and expressed his appreciation for the decision, while noting that the move should ensure the survival of David’s law through the coming elections.
“It also serves to provide us with a platform that will allow experts and people who have been negatively affected by cyberbullying and cyberabuse to give testimony,” Cliff said during a recent interview. “David’s law has been sort of an abstract idea up to this point, but when Sen. Menédez issued this press release, it really turned David’s law into something concrete.”
Though this is a promising step for those who support more aggressive anti-bullying laws and policies, Cliff has also acknowledged that the process won’t be easy or simple.
“There are so many moving pieces right now,” he said. “It might not actually be just this one law. The idea of David’s Law might encompass a handful of laws or at least amendments to existing laws. Addressing the issue of cyberbullying isn’t something that can be executed with just one piece of legislation.”
Cliff’s cousin, Stephanie Matthews, who was formerly the chief of staff for state Sen. Donna Campbell, has helped them put together a team of lobbyists to advise them on legislative changes.
While the family will continue to be involved in legislation, Cliff said they are currently more focused on raising awareness about cyberbullying. Part of that goal involves raising money for David’s Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit that the family created in the weeks following their youngest son’s death. The Foundation’s GoFundMe page has raised more than $80,000 so far. Some of those contributions were independent donations from people moved by David’s story, but others came from more organized campaigns.
Bird Bakery in Alamo Heights is selling a “Be Kind” cupcake in honor of David. According to the bakery and the Molak family, 100% of the proceeds have been donated to David’s Legacy Foundation. As of Friday, the bakery’s cupcake sales have netted more than $7,000 for the foundation.
Brooke Leddy, after receiving the go-ahead from the Molak family, began selling red and white yard signs for $10 each. Proceeds from the signs, which read “Stop Bullying Now” and can be seen in yards all over Alamo Heights, will also go to the Molak’s foundation.
The Tribe Strength and Conditioning gym, of which David and his father were founding members, hosted a fundraiser in honor of David last Saturday. The San Antonio Spurs, a team David adored, contributed a basketball signed by every player. The Tribe owners renamed their “Athlete of the Month Award,” which David won this last October, to the “David Molak Athlete of the Month Award.”
Two local lawyers have begun efforts to start a foundation that will lobby and fundraise for new anti-bullying laws, in addition to providing pro-bono legal assistance to victims of bullying. The organization is called “Don’t Bully Me,” a phrase that, not coincidentally, shares its acronym with David B. Molak.
The Molak family has also received less formal support — David’s classmates and acquaintances have flocked to Facebook and other social media sites to share positive stories about him. The final months of David’s online life were painful and exhausting, but the outpouring of support has made the Internet a positive place for Cliff in the months since his brother’s death.
“It’s great logging onto Facebook and receiving messages from his classmates at school and hearing anecdotes about how great a person he was,” Cliff said during an earlier interview in January with the Rivard Report.
Molak recounted a story about David sitting in an empty classroom with another student. They had been in class together before, he said, but they were not friends and hadn’t really talked.
“She starts to put her makeup on, and David turns around and asks her what she’s doing. (He says) she doesn’t need that,” Cliff recalled. “And she said her self esteem just has never been higher. It gave her such a boost.”
From the stories Cliff shared, David comes across as a genuinely nice kid. He was also sensitive and particularly earnest for a student in a competitive high school that some claim overvalues popularity, looks, and wealth.
He was also well-known as a Spurs fan. Maurine Molak, David’s mother,works accounting for the company that manages Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich’s pool. A year ago, Mrs. Molak received a voicemail from Popovich at her office.
“For a week every day after school (David) would walk over to her office and listen to that message from Coach Pop, because he just loved how you know, the Coach Pop, would address his mom,” Cliff said.
The story is charming, and it is easy to imagine David doing this. In photos online, he is tall and gangly. He is, as many commenters have pointed out, quite handsome. He pulls goofy faces and broad smiles. In a picture taken at The Tribe gym, he is pushing a heavy set of dumbbells from his shoulders. His mouth is open in a gasp of agony and exhilaration familiar to anyone who has pushed their body to its physical limit.
To some of David’s peers, his earnestness and sincerity made him an easy mark.
“I think he was identified as someone who was more sensitive and as a result of that would have a harder time sticking up for himself,” Cliff said. “And that put a target on his back.”
In October 2015, an Alamo Heights student posted a picture on his Instagram of himself with David’s girlfriend, with a caption that said he would “steal your girl.”
The comments beneath the post quickly became a mess of insults and taunts. David’s girlfriend repeatedly begged for her picture to be taken down, and asked the poster to stop declining her phone calls about the post. One commenter told her to “stop defending her psycho (boyfriend).” Another told her that she had “no chill” and told her to “cry some more.”
Even to someone familiar with Instagram and its associated slang, the comments on this post are confusing. The teenagers referenced inside jokes and started several mini-conversations within the longer thread. David jumped into the fray to defend himself. He attempted to shoot back at the original poster by referencing Reid Kelley, the 12-year-old Alamo Heights student who died during a birthday party at Dunlap Lake near New Braunfels in 2013.
Kelley was at the bottom of a water slide when another child was allegedly pushed down it — that child crashed into him and Kelley drowned. Some sources have suggested that the student who posted the photo of himself with David’s girlfriend also pushed that child down the slide at the lake, though official reports say that his death was accidental.
“Surprised you didn’t murder her too,” David wrote under the post, referring to the original poster of the photo.
David’s comments were deleted shortly after they were posted, but insults directed at him kept pouring in. Some of the teenagers called him an ape or suggested that he fight the original poster, while others appeared to be there for the show. One girl noted that there were “100 comments,” as if to point out how much attention the post had gotten. Another wrote “this is so f***in good.”
Though attention in the press thus far has suggested that the student behind the Instagram post was David’s primary bully, Cliff Molak made it clear that multiple people were involved in the harassment that led to his brother’s death.
When asked how he thinks of the kids involved, Cliff was hesitant to tar each one with the same brush.
“I think the vast majority of the kids who did engage in cyberbullying against David are, deep down, good kids,” he said. “They just made a bad decision. Or made a series of bad decisions. There are a couple of them who are a little more questionable, and I’ll try to be subtle and leave it at that.”
Though Cliff is in his early 20s, he seems baffled by the ingenuity that some teenagers employ to avoid censure online.
“They create multiple accounts,” Cliff said. “And one of the reasons why David was bullied on Instagram was because people create what’s called a Finstagram, a fake Instagram. These students … their friends know who they are, but outsiders like me or you wouldn’t be able to identify them.”
After the post in October, Cliff said, his parents made David delete his account, though he eventually got it back.
“But you know, where do you draw the line?” Cliff said. “If your kid is being bullied through an app, you tell them to delete that app. If your kid is being bullied at school you can have them change schools.”
But online bullying, Cliff said, could be compared to having the bullies waiting in the front yard.
“If the bullies start waiting in your front yard, you know, what do you do?” Cliff said. “Do you homeschool them? Do you have them never leave their room?”
After all, social media profiles aren’t really optional these days, and if a kid is on them, a bully will have access.
“Even if you delete Instagram, they’ll find a different way,” he said. “They’ll add you to GroupMe (a group texting service). To add someone to GroupMe, all you need is their phone number.”
Furthermore, as Cliff and other anti-bullying and anti-harassment advocates argue, it should not be the victim who is forced to abandon an online presence or change schools.
Cliff hopes that parents will do more to mitigate the bad online choices of their children.
“I think at Alamo Heights and other schools there’s a culture of parents preferring to remain blissfully unaware of the activities of their children,” Cliff said. “(They) assume they’re always doing the right thing.”
Though Cliff acknowledged that it can be difficult to understand the whole of a teenager’s online presence, he was particularly frustrated by one Alamo heights mother who herself made negative comments about David online.
The woman’s son had made several comments beneath the October Instagram post—he was the person who told David’s girlfriend to “cry some more.” In the comments section under an article about David Molak on The Heavy, she wrote that her son had made one comment “in response to a very disturbing comment made by DM.” She then quoted David’s remarks about Reid Kelley. She also wrote that her son had not communicated with David Molak at any other time, though screenshots shared with the Rivard Report and posted elsewhere online show that her son had at least made multiple other comments within that thread.
Cliff said that, shortly after the mother posted her comment, the boy and his father came to the Molak’s home to apologize for the boy’s behavior toward David.
When asked if he appreciated the apology from the son, Cliff said that the context of the apology made that difficult.
“He came over and apologized at the same time his mother was at home on the computer slandering my little brother.”
Though he is determined to make David’s legacy a positive one, it is clear that Cliff Molak is angry.
David, he feels, was let down by systems that were put into place to protect him.
Though the Molaks confronted the administration at Alamo Heights after the Instagram incident in October, and the school says it took disciplinary action, Cliff is unaware of what that was because of the confidentiality that surrounds minors. David, not his bullies, transferred to a different school in November.
Cliff said that prior to the Instagram post, another spat of bullying in Feb. 2015 caused David to reach out to a trusted *mentor outside of his family who knew both David and his bullies. Cliff did not want to get into specifics, but he said that when the mentor did not take David’s complaints seriously, it deeply affected David.
“I think he became depressed after the February incident when he felt like he was ostracized by his friends and abandoned by his coaches, by his teachers, by his mentors,” Cliff said. “And that put him in a funk, and that funk only got worse as the bullying picked up.”
Ultimately, Cliff believes that the bullying was so difficult for David because it was repeated so many times without any serious repercussions for the offenders. David felt alone, and he felt helpless.
“Because David was a victim of repeat offenders, I think that if they had been charged with a misdemeanor the first time around, parents would have stepped up to the plate and realized that this is going on.” Cliff said. “(They might have realized their) son has already been charged with a crime, this has got to stop. And they likely would have talked to their kids about it, and prevented it from recurring.”
However, Cliff recognizes that, to some extent, the school district is limited in what it can do.
“The school district’s hands are tied when the incidents take place outside the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. and off the school campus, unless the actions of other students hinder the day to day activities of a particular student,” Cliff said. “In David’s case the bullying outside of school got so bad that he was afraid to go back to school. Action should have been taken then, but again, the policy is not transparent with not very well-defined punishments.”
Cliff, along with the rest of his family, hopes that the bills being worked on by Sen. Menéndez and Rep. Minjarez will make policies clearer, and will give schools and law enforcement more options to prevent cyberbullying.
Until then, the Molak family will continue to fight for awareness.
Already, Cliff said, David’s story has helped someone.
“We got a letter from a school district saying there was a kid suffering from bullying and the parents were worrying about their kid hurting themselves,” he said. “And after (they heard about David) they thought to themselves, I don’t want this to happen to our son or daughter. So they took them in to get treatment.”
As a result of that, they learned how close their child actually was to inflicting serious harm on themselves. So we can say that at least one life for sure have been saved.”
When asked how hearing that story makes him feel, Cliff is not hesitant.
“It’s awesome. It’s an awesome feeling. But it’s unfortunate that it took this tragedy to save those lives.”
*CORRECTION: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the status of a person David went to in February; a mentor.
Top image: Cliff Molak is in his second year of medical school. Photo by Scott Ball.
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