When officials determined four students at Rapoport Academy had participated in bullying at one of their schools in December, the officials also decided the students’ actions were severe enough to administratively remove them for the rest of this school year and all of next year, Superintendent Alexis Neumann said.
And since September, Waco Independent School District has investigated three students in separate incidents allegedly targeting classmates through cyber bullying on social media, Waco ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer said.
One of the incidents resulted in a “stay-away” agreement between the students involved, and one resulted in disciplinary action. Waco ISD was unable to discipline the third student because the student moved out of the district before action could be taken, DeBeer said.
Though officials at both schools declined to provide details of the incidents, citing privacy laws, three of the four were directly related to a more proactive approach schools are taking to address bullying because of a new law passed this summer during the 85th Legislature.
“Ultimately, we all have the same goal for our parents, students and staff,” DeBeer said. “We want schools that are safe and welcoming learning environments for our students and a great place to work for our staff. If there’s something that is happening that leads a student to feel unsafe at school or have concerns about interacting at school, it’s something we want to know about and address.”
David’s Law, which expanded the definition of bullying to include cyber bullying among minors and public school students, gave public education systems more authority to intervene in instances of bullying beyond school grounds and events. It also increased the potential criminal penalty for students who are found to have committed such an act and required school districts to provide a notice to parents of the incident.
The law, which took effect Sept. 1, was established after David Bartlett Molak, 16, died by suicide Jan. 4, 2016, following harassment, humiliation and threats through text messages and social media from a group of students.
“We know sometimes things that happen outside of the school, especially on social media, can spill over into the school and affect the learning environment, like spur on a fight,” DeBeer said. “It allows us to intervene in those situations earlier and potentially intervene before they escalate.”
Jeni Janek has taught crisis prevention training for 12 years and digital citizenship training for the last two as an education specialist at Education Service Center Region 12.
Before the new law, involvement in Janek’s digital citizenship training was sparse, she said. Now, because of the added bullying reporting process under David’s law, she has seen an uptick in the number of schools requesting the training to dive deep into how the influence of social media can impact the overall development of a student, she said.
Since August, Janek has trained students, parents and staff at 10 McLennan County schools about the new law. What most parents and teachers are surprised by are the statistics, she said.
More than 90 percent of students are online in some way every single day, she said. More than 70 percent have multiple social media accounts, and more than half the students online say they have felt they have been cyber bullied before, she said.
“Even though the age students are legally able to have social media is 13, we’re seeing a lot of kids start social media accounts much, much younger,” Janek said. “That’s concerning because they may not have social media etiquette.”
As much as David’s Law is about holding students accountable, it is also about showing teachers and parents the authority and responsibility they have to intervene and educate students about the impact of social media without villainizing it, she said.
“Our kids are in a digital age unlike anything you’ve ever seen when it comes to sharing information, and we’ve got to be there for them,” Janek said.
Of the instances at Rapoport Academy and Waco ISD, none of the students are facing criminal charges, and not all were directly tied to cyber bullying, school officials said. But the investigations have allowed for a more open dialogue on the campuses about the use of social media and how to identify bullying in hallways, they said.
“I’ve talked with students and I’ve heard students’ conversations, and a lot of the conversation has been that everything is watched, everything matters,” Neumann said. “We’ve had a lot more screen shots presented to the school than we’ve ever had before. Students are getting better about (understanding), that for Instagram or Snapchat, it doesn’t go away. Once it’s up, somebody’s going screen shot it, so there’s no such thing as disappearing information, and I think our students are getting very aware of that.”
Some student posts have reached administrators in a matter of hours, Neumann said.
Rapoport officials are often telling students their social media posts can be long-lasting and impact future employment opportunities, college applications and the emotional and physical well-being of their peers, she said. And students are often surprised when they realize criminal charges are possible in some cases, she said.
“The apps are going to change, the website are going to change,” Janek said. “What’s not going to change are the development stages our kids are going through — the building self-esteem and character development — that’s the part as a human being that’s not going to change.”