It’s been nearly five months since their 16-year-old son, David Molak, took his own life after enduring vicious attacks from cyberbullies. But Matt and Maurine Molak – with help from friends, family and lots of community supporters – are battling bullying with messages of love and greater parental and school involvement.
The Molaks are taking that message citywide, and for those families enduring bullying now, the message is: they’re not alone.
Alamo Heights High School was the scene Monday morning for the start of a weeklong bully prevention tour launched in David’s memory. Motivational youth speaker Gabe Salazar, a San Antonio native, is speaking to middle and high schoolers at 10 campuses this week with hopes that kids will realize words have a profound, lasting impact on their peers.
Alamo Heights is also where David was the target of bullying, especially online and via text messages, before transferring to San Antonio Christian School last fall. But the cyberbullying only grew worse. He was found dead in his family’s backyard Jan. 4. His death was ruled a suicide.
The tragedy has since become a rallying cry for an increased awareness of cyberbullying, and how even state legislation could turn the tide in the favor of parents, schools and law enforcement in the battle against all forms of bullying.
More than 80 people gathered for a Monday night public event at Tri-Point Event Center, as part of the citywide tour, to listen to the Molaks and Salazar.
The evening was not somber in tone. Rather, it was filled with spiritual music, prayer, jokes by Salazar, and an atmosphere of fellowship. Salazar had finely tuned his presentation to speak the language of the new generation, using hip-hop music and references to pop culture. The hashtag #DavidsLegacy, a symbol of this current struggle, was prevalent on shirts and signs displayed by organizers at the event.
Contributions to the Molak’s nonprofit David’s Legacy Foundation are helping to fund this citywide tour, said Nancy Salazar, Gabe’s wife. Nancy added she and Gabe owe it to their four children for inspiring their parents to teach youngsters of hope and responsibility.
Parents should pay attention to what is being said between their children and their friends, Matt said, acknowledging that peers are a strong force during a person’s formative, impressionable years.
“That’s where it can be controlled, that’s where it can be stopped, (we) can keep it from progressing to a critical point,” Matt said. “To do that, we really need to focus on character development. That’s what David was doing in school, but it’s going to take a lot more of that. It’s going to take a change in heart in a lot of people.”
Matt encouraged parents to raise their level of involvement in their children’s lives, including taking more control of how youngsters access the internet at home and on smartphones. He also said he hopes schools change how they address issues such as cyberbullying, which tends to begin at school but continues off-campus and after hours.
He reiterated his family’s wish for new state legislation, such as state Sen. José Menéndez’s proposed “David’s Law,” aimed at making cyberbullying a punishable offense.
“It’s sad we have to talk about legislating how kids talk to each other, communicate with each other, but it’s something that we’re a little bit behind on and something that is necessary,” Matt said.
He recalled his son’s funeral, when one of David’s brothers, Chris, talked of individuals “that get their satisfaction out of dimming the lights of others, they need to know that sometimes, those lights just don’t come back on.”
Maurine thanked the San Antonio community, which she said has helped her family cope with its grief and shine a light on a difficult topic.
“There have been numerous grassroots efforts to increase awareness of cyberbullying and bullying,” she said. “Those are conversations happening in people’s homes. They’re talking about things they’ve never talked about before.”
Possible solutions are available for some parents and children who currently experience bullying. David’s Legacy Foundation is working with local attorneys Clayton Smaistrla and Jimmy Carter to lead an initiative in which they and other attorneys offer pro bono legal services for families struggling with bullying.
“They’ve already had several successes, which gives us hope that we can put a stop to bullying,” she added.
Back on stage, Gabe said the anti-bullying shirts and signs, along with the outpouring of support, show that San Antonio community members care about each other. With some humor, Gabe shared his personal story: overcoming obstacles of homelessness and gang influence to make better life choices.
Gabe said he understands teenagers are stressed enough by the challenge of figuring out how they fit in socially, but that is just as fine for youngsters to distinguish themselves – to be themselves.
“You are not created to fit in, you’re designed to stand out,” he said. “I tell kids, even the fingerprints you have are a signature that you are important, that there’s nobody like you. Babies are not born with other people’s fingerprints. It’s not like she got Selena’s and he got Tupac’s.”
Gabe echoed Matt’s suggestions, that parents more closely monitor their youngsters’ online and phone usage, including having a “cell phone parking lot” – a space at home where they turn in their mobile devices, especially before going to bed.
Children and teenagers’ passwords should be known to their parents. Otherwise, he said, the passwords are secrets that foster distrust. Adults, Gabe added, are the first and main defense between their child and the threats that are readily available on the internet, in social media and on texts, even with filters.
“You don’t look for bullying, it’ll look for you,” he added.
Bullying comes in all different forms, he said, but in many ways, verbal jabs are worse than physical bullying.
“If you plant a bad seed, some people say nothing grows but that’s not true when it comes to words,” Gabe explained. “Ugliness grows evil, vicious things. You can’t take those words back because you’ve planted a seed. I know people that are dealing with things told to them when they were young.”
That’s where the power of positivity and encouragement come into play. Gabe said parents and their children should tell each other they love and care for each other, early and often. At night’s end, he urged each parent to hug their child at the event and say, “I love you, I see greatness in you, and I’m going to fight for you.”
Nancy said she and her husband will be part of the bully prevention tour through the summer, available to any groups that can accommodate them, and resume visiting schools this fall.
Alamo Heights freshman Ava Steindl, attending the event with her mother Beth, said she appreciated the tour’s messages of awareness, responsibility and togetherness to prevent bullying.
“There are lot of precautions being made, like the cell phone parking lot, and I feel like people are taking a stand for what they’re doing. It should become more of a solution than a problem,” Ava said.
“I’m ecstatic by the community effort put into this,” Beth added. “It’s a grassroots initiative that starts with the parents at home.”
Top image: Motivational Youth Speaker Gabe Salazar gives students at Alamo Heights High School a lively lecture about bullying. Photo by Scott Ball.