Bill targets cyberbullying

By Richard Lee
For the Fort Bend Star

Those who harass children on-line and through social media could face penalties under a bill considered by the State Affairs Committee on Thursday.

San Antonio Senator José Menéndez told committee members that such harassment is rampant and is a major contributor to the rise in teen suicide.

“This has become an epidemic with a staggering amount of children committing suicide,” he said. “As a matter of fact, teen suicide is the number one reason that teens are dying. It’s surpassing automobile accidents.”

His bill, SB 179, would give parents, schools and courts tools to go after people who try to incite young Texans to hurt themselves via the Internet. Menéndez told the story of several Texas families whose children were harassed into committing suicide on social media. One was Brandy Vela, an 18-year-old high school senior from Texas City. She shot herself last December in front of her parents after a months-long campaign of harassment from anonymous on-line bullies. Menéndez told the committee the bullies continued to harass the family about the death of their daughter.

“The sad part is her killers will pay a small fine and walk free,” Menéndez read from a letter by Brandy’s father Raul Vela. “While I’m having to pay $75,000 worth of medical bills and funeral services, in addition to grieving the death of our loved one.”

The bill would create causes of action at the school level, for civil courts and criminal penalties for the most heinous harassers. At schools, the bill would require districts to form policies to combat cyberbullying and to prevent suicide. It gives school administrators more latitude to punish on-line bullies and requires they report incidents of cyberbullying to local police.

Parents would also have to be notified immediately by the school if their child was the victim of on-line bullying. The bill would also require schools to set up a system by which students can anonymously report incidences of cyberbullying.

On the civil side, the bill would direct the state Supreme Court to develop rules for subpoenaing relevant social media information in cases of cyberbullying, in order to unmask anonymous harassers. It would also allow a person to be sued for up to $25,000 in damages if they, or their child, engage in the cyberbullying of a minor. A parent could also seek a temporary restraining order against their child’s bully. The bill would create a new offense in the penal code, up to a class A misdemeanor, for those whose harassment of a minor leads to that minor attempting or committing suicide.

“It’s important that there should be some consequences to people who coerce our children to hurt themselves,” said Menéndez. “I don’t see it much different than if there were a child on a ledge out there and someone would be out there saying ‘Jump! Jump!’”

The bill remains pending before the committee.

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