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Texas Teen's Suicide Changed How Schools Handle Bullying: 'We Need To Be Able To Measure The Impact'

NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) - It's a problem at every school, in every district. With social media, kids can now become targets of bullying anywhere.

Texas schools are now required to track every single bullying incident that is reported.

But even though that information is readily available, the Texas Education Agency is not required to collect the data.

That fact leaves some students and parents wondering how the state can understand the magnitude of the bullying crisis.

From a young age, Ella Morrow, 14, knew she wanted to act, but she said that same passion made her a target.

"They could tell I was passionate and confident about what I wanted to do in life and turned it away from me, to the point I didn't even like acting for a while," Ella said.

The bullying, which mostly happened on Instagram, started in fourth grade and lasted years, according to the aspiring actress.

Ella said the harassment got so bad she had no choice but to leave her school.

"[The bullying] was every single day and I would cry, cry, cry," Ella said.

So in sixth grade, Ella transferred from Mansfield ISD to Texas Online Preparatory School.

"They could have taken the right procedures to do something about it," said Ella, referring to teachers and administrators.

While Ella's story is troubling, it is not unique.

"I think, 'Gosh, David, why didn't you tell me, why didn't you tell us about everything,'" said Maurine Molak.

David Molak
David Molak (courtesy: Molak family)

Molak describes her son, David, as friendly, athletic and loving.

But in high school, the San Antonio teen became the victim of relentless cyberbullying. In 2016, David Molak took his own life.

"That was the hardest time of my entire life to see him go through that," Maurine Molak said.

David Molak and parents
David Molak with his parents after earning Eagle Scout. (courtesy: Molak family)

David's death transformed how bullying is handled in Texas.

For years, schools could only investigate incidents that happened on campus, which essentially excludes instances of cyberbullying.

That changed with David's Law.

"We have people who reach out all the time and say David's Law changed their child's life," Molak said.

In 2017, David's Law criminalized cyberbullying.

Schools are mandated to adopt anti-bullying policies. In most cases, those policies can be found on districts' websites.

David's Law also required every district to create an anonymous reporting system for bullying and other threats so school administrators know exactly what's going on.

But there's one entity that won't see these numbers: the Texas Education Agency.

"We could always be doing better," Molak said in response to our question, "Is the state doing enough to prevent bullying?"

By law, at least 28 states require schools to report the number of bullying incidents to their top education agency.

Texas is not one of them.

In fact, efforts to mandate state reporting died in the legislature last session.

SB 1178, authored by Sen. Menendez, would have required districts to annually report the number of bullying and cyberbullying incidents through the Public Education Information Management System.

"If you don't have a reporting tool, if you don't know the magnitude of it, how do you know it's working, and how do you know how many kids are impacted by it?" Molak said.

The Ones For Justice crunched the data after surveying 35 school districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Since 2017, those districts received 8,645 reports. Administrators investigated every incident.

Check to see how many reports your district received. Some districts clarified the number of reports regarding elementary, middle or high school. Other education agencies provided specific data about how many reports were substantiated as "bullying" or "cyberbullying" incidents.

James Hopper, the superintendent of Venus ISD said incidents of bullying were "absolutely" thwarted because of the app.

With just over 2,000 students, Venus ISD is one of the smallest school systems in the DFW area. But it serves as an example of a district that has fully embraced its reporting tools, in addition to specialized training for all teachers and administrators.

Hopper said because the town of Venus, a rural community, lacks a local newspaper, people rely heavily on social media and technology to stay connected.

"The tipline isn't perfect," Hopper said. "Its data can be quite skewed. But if the tipline helps one student, it is still worth it."

Since 2017, Venus ISD has received 217 reports through its anonymous reporting system. Almost half of those cases dealt specifically with bullying. Of those, 49 incidents ocured in one month, on one campus, according to Hopper.

"I don't think we have more of a problem here than anywhere else," Hopper said. "But at the same time, if we do, we will address it, and we will call it what it is."

After losing her son, Maurine Molak vowed to protect other children.

She now runs David's Legacy Foundation, which works to eliminate cyberbullying.

Molak said there is always more to be done to combat bullying once and for all.

"We need to be able to measure the impact of it," Molak said.

Molak said if existing legislation does not address reporting requirements between districts and the state, she will return to the legislature next session to push for change.

The Texas Education Agency declined a request for an on-camera interview.

On its website, TEA lists resources for addressing bullying as well as mental and behavioral health.

More information on bullying and cyberbullying can be found here.

Mansfield ISD would not comment specifically on Ella Morrow's situation due to privacy laws.

Instead Donald Williams, the district's associate superintendent of communications and marketing, issued the following statement:

"Mansfield ISD strives to provide a safe, secure and respectful learning environment for all of its students. The District takes every report of bullying very seriously. Each case is thoroughly investigated, and involved parties are contacted and updated about the investigation's progress as necessary until the case concludes. f an incident of bullying is confirmed, appropriate consequences are given in accordance with the District's Student Code of Conduct. Details about specific student cases cannot be released due to privacy laws. However, along with the district's anti-bullying procedures outlined on the district's web page, there are also problem-solving procedures that parents and students can utilize as they see fit. The safety and security of our students and staff will always remain our top priority. Students and parents are encouraged to contact a teacher or administrator any time they have a concern regarding bullying or harassment."

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