Texas Lawmakers Introduce Bills to Crack Down on Cyberbullying

The Texas Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 179 last week and House Bill 306 is still pending in the House Public Education Committee.

by Ashley Rose, Cleburne Times-Review, Texas / May 12, 2017
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) -- Two bills have been filed in the Texas Legislature to address the ever-growing problem of cyberbullying.

The Texas Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 179 last week, commonly known as called “David’s Law.”

The Texas House Public Education Committee held a hearing recently where parents of students who took their own lives after aggressive online harassment told the panel they wanted cyberbullies to face more consequences for their actions.

SB 179, authored by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, makes cyberbullying a misdemeanor and gives school districts the ability to intervene in cyberbullying cases.

Cleburne ISD Communications Director Lisa Magers said cyberbullying is addressed in the district’s Student Code of Conduct in the section relating to the misuse of technology resources and the Internet.

“Students shall not send, post or possess electronic messages that are abusive, obscene, sexually oriented, threatening, harassing, damaging to another’s reputation or illegal, including cyberbullying and ‘sexting,’ either on or off school property, if the conduct causes a substantial disruption to the educational environment,” according to the code.

Magers said all students are held accountable for their behavior and are subject to discipline consequences as outlined in code.

Changes to the Code of Conduct are the result of legislative action and/or the Texas Education Agency, Magers said.

The bill also allows courts to issue subpoenas to reveal cyberbullies and permits victims to sue in civil court if parents of the cyberbully had the opportunity to intervene but did not.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said he voted against SB 179 when the bill passed out of the Senate Committee on State Affairs in late April.

“My chief concern with the bill as then-written was that it created a new criminal penalty by presuming a direct causal relationship between an individual’s words and the decision of another to inflict upon one’s self severe harm or commit suicide,” Birdwell said. “While I believe bullying of any kind is detestable and should not be tolerated, it is often only one of many factors that can lead to such action. This assumption of causation between  the two actions would have set a dangerous precedent in the law, which I could not support.”

However, understanding the importance of the issue, he said was determined to not give up on this piece of legislation and continued to work with Menéndez to craft an appropriate criminal penalty to deter cyberbullying but one that does not presume causality.

“After much collaboration, Sen. Menéndez accepted my proposed changes as an amendment [last week] on the Senate floor,” he said. “Moreover, rather than creating a new criminal penalty all together, my amendment modernizes and builds upon an existing criminal offense concerning harassment.

“By including 21st century technologies in its application — text messaging or social media — an offense constituting harassment now applies to cyberbullying. Further, my amendment guarantees a greater severity in punishment if it is found that an individual is repeatedly cyberbullying a child with the intent for the child to commit suicide or engage in conduct causing serious bodily injury.”

By revising the bill in this manner, he said they are eliminating the causality presumption outlined in the original bill, while still maintaining an adequate criminal penalty deterrent for cyberbullying and an increased penalty for most abhorrent forms of cyberbullying.

He said he commends Menéndez for the hard work he has put into this legislation and thank him for working with Birdwell to pass the best possible law.

“It brought me great pride to vote for SB 179, as I believe it will provide greater resources to prevent and deter bullying, and send a strong message that this conduct will not be tolerated in the State of Texas,” he said.

State Rep. DeWayne Burns, R-Cleburne, said recently HB 306 is still pending in the House Public Education Committee and, so he can only give some “broad-stroke answers” about his concerns surrounding cyberbullying and what needs to be done to curtail it.

“Bullying of all types has always been a problem in schools, but with the advent of cyberbullying it is often harder to detect because it’s not happening in front of a teacher or administrator on the playground or the locker room or the hallway,” Burns said. “Of course the primary responsibility of policing the social media habits of a child lies with their parents, however schools certainly have a responsibility if they identify a situation where cyberbullying is taking place. Pinpointing the offenders, informing parents and also informing the authorities in cases where threats are being made against a child is critical.”

Burns said death threats or any kind of language/action used to threaten bodily harm to another student is a criminal act.

“It should be treated as such, and I believe the state can offer clear guidance to school districts in these types of cases as to their responsibility to intervene,” he said. “However, I would caution against creating another unfunded mandate or other state-driven requirements that get in the way of local parents, teachers and administrators finding the best solutions that work in their schools and communities.”

©2017 the Cleburne Times-Review (Cleburne, Texas) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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