Texas' Cyberbullying Law Goes Against Federal Recommendations

click to enlarge Texas' Cyberbullying Law Goes Against Federal Recommendations
"Do us all a favor, kill yourself." "Satan will rip your innards out and spit them out to the gates of hell." "I hope cancer comes back and kills you."

These are just a few of the messages Matthew Vasquez received via social media when he was a freshman in high school. His leukemia had just gone into remission, but photos of him during treatment had appeared online and had somehow made Matthew the target of an unusually cruel onslaught of cyberbullying. According to his father Leo Vasquez, who testified in front of the Texas Senate's Committee of State Affairs Thursday, neither the police nor the school district could do anything to stop the online abuse. "I believe my son considered suicide," Leo said.

But Matthew was one of the fortunate teens who made it past this new trend of online bullying without hurting himself. David Molak, a San Antonio teenager relentlessly bullied by his classmates online, didn't. After 16-year-old Molak died from suicide in January 2016, his parents worked with state lawmakers to pen "David's Law," a bill that would would make it illegal to “electronically harass or bully” anyone under the age 18. Authored by State Sen. Jose Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat, this bill would let schools expel students over bullying — and then turn them over to the police.

Menéndez says this bill should act more as a "deterrent" to students and "hopes to God we don't have to prosecute kids"  — but federal recommendations and studies on bullying say that punishing the problem away isn't the solution.

Josette Saxton, the director of mental health policy for Texans Care for Children, pointed to a 2016 study by the National Academy of Sciences in her Thursday testimony. The study explicitly advises schools against suspending or expelling students who bully, as it may just exacerbate any behavioral issues.

"What works is true prevention and intervention," she said. "We should be implementing practices to create a safe and supportive school climate instead of waiting until it's too late."

Sen. Joan Huffman, who chairs the committee, called this talk "soft and cushy" and asked Saxton to imagine telling these dead children's parents to just "change the school climate."

"[Cyberbullies] should be punished, I don't care how old they are," she said.

Saxton responded that as a mother, it was hard to wake up Thursday morning knowing she would have to say these things to a room full of mourning parents.

"It's not easy for me," she said. "But I need the committee to know this is the current state of research."

What further complicates this bill is that it seems to directly blame bullies for the victim's suicide. Saxton said that sets a dangerous precent. "You cannot say that bullying causes suicide," she told the Senate. "Yes, it's a risk factor. But you can't make that direct causal relationship."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees.

"It is particularly important to understand the difference between the circumstances being related to an event versus being direct causes or effects of the event," the CDC writes in a 2014 report. "Framing the discussion of the issue of bullying being a single, direct cause of suicide is not helpful."

Absent at the Thursday committee hearing was discussion about the bill's possible threat to free speech. But legal experts in this new area of law say Menéndez's bill would violate student's constitutional rights.

"There’s no rule in the First Amendment for speech that causes harm for a minor,” David Greene, a senior attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told us earlier this year. “If they want to pass these protections, it will have to fit within current laws.”

Menéndez's bill was left pending in committee.


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