The Texas State Senate Committee on Criminal Justice heard testimonies on cyberbullying, an issue that several speakers agreed has escalated in recent years, at the State Capitol in Austin Tuesday.
Among those offering emotional and sometimes shocking statements were members of two San Antonio families, whose teenage sons were both victims of conspicuous online harassment. The Molak family, whose son David committed suicide in early January following months of online derision, appeared alongside the Vasquez family, whose son Matt endured five months of vicious attacks on social media after being diagnosed with leukemia in 2014.
Both families have been working with State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) and State Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-124) to write and pass an anti-cyberbullying bill they are calling David’s Law, named in honor of David, who was only 16 years old when he was found dead in the Molak’s backyard on Jan. 4.
Both Molak and Vasquez were subjected to scathing abuse by peers, most of which they or their parents recorded via screenshots of social media apps or text messaging threads. Because of that extensive documentation, Maurine Molak, David’s mother, and Leo Vasquez, Matt’s father, were able to recount in excruciating detail the impact of the attacks on their sons Tuesday.
Their testimonies provided the strange and disturbing experience of hearing parents recount some of the worst and most violent things that have ever been said about their own children, including, in Vasquez’s case, posts that he said amounted to death threats against his son Matt.
In one instance, Vasquez said, an anonymous Instagram user gave Matt advice on how to end his life. The commenter suggested that a gun would be too quick, and recommended that Matt instead tie a boulder to his leg and drown himself in a lake so that spectators could enjoy watching him die.
Despite the disturbing imagery and language directed at both boys, the Molak and Vasquez families said they had little legal recourse to address the harassment. The Vasquez family said they still don’t know the identity or identities of their son’s bully; local law enforcement, they claimed, told them that the messages didn’t amount to a “viable threat.”
They, along with Menéndez and Minjarez, hope to offer more avenues to address cyberbullying with David’s Law, which Menéndez plans to file by November and pass during the 2017 legislative session.
The law, according to a summary provided by Menéndez’s office, “will allow law enforcement, through subpoenas, an increased ability to unmask anonymous social media users who send threatening messages or make threatening posts.”
It will also “make it a misdemeanor to electronically harass or bully anyone under the age of 18 through text messages, social media, websites, apps, or other means.”
That clause worried Lauren Rose, director of youth justice policy at Texans Care for Children, a nonprofit children’s policy organization, and Morgan Craven, director of the School-to-Prison Pipeline at Texas Appleseed, which aims to promote social and economic justice in Texas. Both women separately addressed the committee with their concerns that the law could designate new criminal offenses for minors and, in effect, shackle children to criminal records that could follow them to adulthood.
Criminal charges levied against young offenders, they argued, can start a chain reaction in which those youth are more likely to be incarcerated as adults. Craven also pointed to research on the subject which claims that zero-tolerance policies toward bullying don’t effectively prevent such behavior.
“The issue is to (address bullying) in an effective way,” she said.
At the podium, Menéndez appeared sympathetic to this argument. Later, when asked by the Rivard Report about those concerns, he said that, to him, the misdemeanor clause was a procedural move rather than an attempt to impose harsher punishments on minors.
“We put in (the) misdemeanor (clause) so that we could get subpoena authority,” he said. “If there’s another way we can get subpoena authority, we’ll work with that. This is not about sending kids to jail because they’re cyberbullies.”
When asked what the next step in a process in which authorities could identify bullies without pursuing a misdemeanor charge would be, Menéndez said he wasn’t yet sure.
“We’re working on it,” he said. “It’s a work in progress.”
The Molaks, who publicly voiced their disappointment in May when Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood announced he would not file charges against any of the teenagers who harassed David, acknowledged that they differ in opinion from advocates like Rose and Craven.
“I think those are concerns that are definitely going to need to be addressed,” said Matt Molak, David’s father, after the hearing. “But at some point you have to have consequences.”
Still, Matt said, he thinks that they can work with those concerns.
“The only time that we’d be pushing for tougher penalties on the penal side would be in the event that somebody was talking somebody into actually committing suicide, or (engaging in extortion) by threatening to expose nude pictures or something like that,” he said. “So, we’re talking about a lot less frequency. I don’t think that falls within the large bucket of concern that (those organizations have), with truancy and people getting sent to prison for truancy.
“I think there’s some common ground there.”
Indeed, the Molaks, Menéndez, Rose, and Craven all stressed the importance of what Rose described as a “focus on prevention and early intervention, so that (the bullying) doesn’t escalate.”
Menéndez was confident that the Criminal Justice Committee would agree to focus on that strategy. He said that Committee Chair John Whitmire seemed enthusiastic about that approach as he interacted with those offering testimonies from the dais.
“(Early intervention and prevention), that’s where I think we all agree,” Menéndez said. “(Because) if we could have done that in the case of David, he might still be here.”
Part of that early intervention could come in the form of an anonymous reporting system that schools would be mandated to implement. Students who had been bystanders to David’s bullying, Menéndez said, approached his parents after his death and said they had been concerned about it, but didn’t know how to take action.
An anonymous reporting system, Menéndez said, could provide an avenue for students who don’t want to report bullying because they are afraid of the repercussions of being bullied themselves. The earlier students report bullying, the more likely it is that administrators, law enforcement, or parents can intervene before things get out of hand.
“That’s the bottom line,” Menéndez said. “That’s how you prevent the ultimate tragedy.”
With the public testimonies closed for now, Menéndez and Minjarez will return to the draft of David’s Law, which they hope to submit simultaneously to the Texas House and Senate in an effort to make its passing more likely.
After their emotional testimony, the Molaks returned to San Antonio Tuesday afternoon to continue their work on David’s Legacy Foundation, the memorial foundation they established in honor of their youngest son.
“(Testifying) is not easy,” Matt Molak told the Rivard Report upon his return home. “But it’s something that we’ve pledged to do and that we’re called to do and take action on.”
Top image: Cliff, Matt, Maurine, and Chris Molak look on as Leo Vasquez reads aloud abusive messages that were sent to his son Matt while he was battling cancer. Photo by Abbey Francis.