By Bill Spinks
Exactly three years after David’s Law went into effect, Midlothian ISD educators say they continue to be watchful for incidents of student bullying, both inside campuses and outside.
Becky Wiginton, MISD’s director of college/career readiness and guidance, said MISD offers guidance lessons from counselors during National Bullying Prevention Month every October.
"At that time of year, at every campus, we make a concerted effort to cover definitions of bullying, what it is, what it’s not and how to report it," Wiginton said. "(We teach) resiliency and coping strategies on how to handle conflict. Of course, we don’t just cover it that one time. Conflict is ongoing with our students and those are continually being covered in guidance."
Wiginton said MISD also partners with Aim for Success, a non-profit youth health organization based in Dallas that does prevention programming for students on every campus, both elementary and secondary. She said Aim for Success offers sessions that provide tips for parents as well.
David’s Law, or Senate Bill 179, was passed by the Texas Legislature in 2017 and went into effect Sept. 1 of that year. It amended the state Education Code regarding harassment, bullying and cyberbullying of a public school student or minor, and encourages certain mental health programs for public school students.
The law was named for David Molak, a 16-year-old high school student in San Antonio who died by suicide after being harassed online.
David’s Law requires reporting of any type of bullying. Criminal penalties for offenses were increased, and the law also provides for civil remedies such as temporary restraining orders and/or injunctions.
Soon after David’s law was passed, MISD launched a crisis prevention tip line that provides a resource for not only bullying, but also counseling for a wide range of mental health services.
KayLynn Day, assistant superintendent for human resources and student services, said MISD has been in compliance with David’s Law from the beginning and has been watchful of bullying since long before the law went into effect. The law simply gave structure to what schools should be looking for, she said.
Day said students have a number of different ways to report not just bullying, but also a variety of instances such as self-harm or information about a dangerous situation.
"For anything that can be a threat or a concern for students, parents or staff, we have an anonymous reporting system," Day said. "That is our Crisis Link, and we’ve had that since David’s Law went into effect. Based on what campus where the concern or occurrence is, that information is immediately sent out to a variety of people, from our SROs (school resource officers) to our counselors, principals and administrative staff."
Day said MISD also uses Gaggle, a system under the Google umbrella that monitors internet traffic and picks up anything that might be of concern, not just from students but also in the community.
The district also regularly performs threat assessments via a team that includes SROs, counselors and campus administrators. Assessments are made based on verbal reporting by students, parents and community members, and anything physical or verbal between students is also investigated and acted upon if needed.
"It’s not just bullying, it’s broader and wider than that," Day said. "But bullying is definitely a part of that."
Day said these investigations are confidential, but said last year there were 24 bullying investigations in the district. While a number of them were considered inappropriate behavior, not all of them fit the definition of bullying, Day noted.
Karen Fitzgerald, assistant superintendent of engagement and strategic innovation, said there is a legal definition of bullying that MISD uses to identify incidences of it. If an inappropriate behavior doesn’t fit the definition of bullying, Fitzgerald said, other provisions in the student code of conduct deal with those behaviors, and the district works hard to keep campuses as environments where students feel safe.
"When somebody reports bullying and there’s an investigation, and it doesn’t meet the legal definition of bullying but other discipline may take place … you may have 43 instances you wouldn’t categorize as bullying," Fitzgerald said. "There’s a lot of confusion about what’s substantiated and what’s unsubstantiated."
Addressing public accusations made by some parents at board meetings and elsewhere that the district was not doing enough to tackle bullying, Day agreed that the term "bullying" is confused in a variety of ways, but that MISD administrators are trained to tell it apart from other behaviors.
"It’s an imbalance of power, so we definitely have to look at that definition (of bullying)," Day added. "If it’s two students using ugly language and dislike at each other, that’s wrong and inappropriate and it will be addressed. But if they’re both doing it, that’s not an imbalance of power and it will go down a different avenue."
Wiginton said staff is given specific training on understanding the definition of bullying and David’s Law, including protocols to help them navigate that definition to determine if the action was bullying or a different type of conflict or behavioral category.
"We work with the Texas Health Safety Center for our training," Wiginton said. "That is what the TEA (Texas Education Agency) recommends and we use their checklist as part of our investigative reporting so that we’re always sure we’re following the letter of the law of our bullying investigations."