A Parent's Guide to School Safety Toolkit

3.2 Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Hazing

Three girls bully a boy at school, one of the girls is pointing at him

Bullying is a devastating and serious problem among children and adolescents, and the impact can be long-lasting. Students who experience bullying, bias, and hate are more likely to feel unsafe, which impacts school climate, school safety, academic performance, and school attendance. Psychological effects of bullying include depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, thoughts of suicide or homicide, and coping through self-harming behavior and substance use. Students with certain diagnoses or disabilities can be more at risk as they may not have the capacity to understand what is happening to them or be able to report the behavior to the appropriate people.

David’s Law, named after David Molak, a 16-year-old child who died by suicide after being relentlessly cyberbullied, implemented legislation in 2017 that expanded the definition of bullying, and provided for anonymous reporting, earlier parental notification, and other tools to assist school districts, parents, police, and prosecutors in the fight to prevent and combat bullying and cyberbullying.

A student is typing a text message that says, 'you're ugly'

Prior to social media, bullying was primarily verbal or physical, such as pushing someone down the stairs or into lockers. However, with the advent of the internet and social media, cyberbullying can take place any day, any time, and in any location; there is no reprieve from it. Since cyberbullying is not face-to-face, a person who bullies does not see how their words and actions impact someone. They do not see the face behind the screen. They can write “I hope you die” or other devastating words and remain relatively detached from the reactions and harm they cause.

Bullying also impacts school safety and climate. The U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC) released a report, Protecting America’s Schools, in 2019 after analyzing 41 incidents of targeted school violence that occurred in U.S. K-12 schools from 2008 to 2017. One of their findings was that most attackers had been persistently bullied by their classmates and the bullying had been witnessed by others. This was again confirmed in a report published in 2021, Averting Targeted School Violence. After studying 67 incidents of disrupted plots against K-12 schools between 2006-2018, the NTAC found that almost one-half of those who plotted an attack experienced bullying by their peers. To be clear, being a target of bullying does not mean that they are more likely to be violent towards others or to enact school violence. Rather, when identifying the motives of those who plotted school attacks, the NTAC found that the motive was most often a grievance against peers, and many cited retaliation for being bullied.

What is bullying?

The action or threat:

  • Causes physical harm or reasonable fear of harm to a student or their property
  • Is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive enough that it creates an educational environment that is intimidating, threatening, or abusive
  • Causes substantial disruption of a student’s education, or to a classroom or school operations
  • Infringes on a student’s rights at school

As cyberbullying can happen anywhere, at home, school, or in the community, and it can take place before or after school hours, the law includes bullying that occurs:

  • At the site of a school-sponsored or school-related activity on or off school property.
  • On a school bus or vehicle being used for transportation of students to or from school or a school-sponsored or school-related activity.
  • Off school property, but it interferes with a student’s education, or disrupts the operation of a classroom, school, or school-sponsored or school-related activity.

What is hazing?

Texas Education Code defines hazing as any intentional, knowing, or reckless act, occurring on or off campus, by one or more people, toward a student for the purpose of pledging, being initiated into, affiliating with, holding office in, or maintaining membership in an organization if the act:

  • Is any type of physical brutality, such as whipping, beating, striking, branding, electronic shocking, placing of a harmful substance on the body, or similar activity
  • Involves sleep deprivation, exposure to the elements, confinement in a small space, physical activity, or other similar activity that causes the student an unreasonable risk of harm that affects the mental health, physical health, or safety of the student
  • Involves eating, drinking, or substance use that subjects the student to an unreasonable risk of harm or that affects the mental health, physical health, or safety of the student
  • Is any activity that makes the student do something illegal
  • Involves making a student use drugs or alcohol to the point of intoxication

Any student that engages in hazing, including encouraging hazing, planning or participating in hazing, or knowledge of hazing and not reporting it can be found guilty of criminal conduct.

What are districts required to do?

A highway sign stating, 'Bully Free Zone'

The Safe and Supportive School Program (SSSP) was created by the 86th Texas Legislature in 2019. The goal of the SSSP is to approach school safety from a comprehensive lens, utilizing school mental health and school safety research-based best practices to achieve physical and psychological safety in an educational environment.

Every Texas public school must be served by a safe and supportive school program team. The safe and supportive school program team is a state mandated team that conducts behavioral threat assessments. The team is responsible for collecting and analyzing harmful, threatening, and violent behavior, which includes bullying, to assess threat and risk levels and determine appropriate interventions. See 2.9 School Behavioral Threat Assessment for more information.

Each school district’s board of trustees must have a bullying policy and procedures which includes:

  • Prohibiting bullying of a student.
  • Prohibiting retaliation against a victim, witness, or anyone else who provides information regarding a bullying incident.
  • Earlier parental or guardian notification regarding bullying incidents:
    • Guardian of victim or target of the bullying: notification on or before the 3rd business day after the reporting date (when the school is notified).
    • Guardian of child who has allegedly bullied: notification within a reasonable amount of time.

The board’s bullying policy must also:

  • Include the actions a student should take to get help and intervention.
  • Outline the available counseling options for a student who is a victim, witness, or who engages in bullying.
  • Create procedures for reporting bullying, including those for:
    • Students to anonymously report.
    • Investigating reports of bullying.
    • Determining whether the reported incident(s) occurred.
  • Prohibit disciplinary measures on a student who used reasonable self-defense in response to bullying. This is reserved for students who, after an investigation, have been found to be victims of bullying.
  • Discipline for bullying of a student with disabilities must comply with federal laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Schools may expel or place in a disciplinary alternative education program any student who:

  • Engages in bullying and who encourages a student to attempt suicide or die by suicide.
  • Incites violence through group bullying.
  • Threatens to release, or releases intimate visual material of a minor, or a student who is aged 18 or older without that person’s consent.

Where can I find my school district’s policy and procedures on bullying?

In 2023, the Texas Education Agency released the minimum standards for bullying and prevention policies and procedures that must be implemented by a school district and an open enrollment charter school. The policy and procedures adopted by the board must be included annually in the student school district handbooks and in the district improvement plan. The procedure for reporting bullying, including anonymous reporting, must be posted on the district's internet website. See 3.3 Anonymous Reporting for more information.

What should I know?

It is important to know the distinctions between rudeness, meanness, and bullying. Children can be rude or mean, but that is different than engaging in bullying behavior. This does not mean that being rude or mean is acceptable behavior, but it is important that you, and your child, know the difference.

A student sits on the group with their head against their knees, crying

Most parents do not want to believe that their child is capable of or engages in bullying, and most parents do not ever want their child to experience the devastation caused from bullying. But the reality is, and research shows, that this is happening, and it is prevalent in Texas schools. Please know that this is not something to minimize or ignore. What children are experiencing today is very different than the bullying that you may have witnessed or experienced in middle school or high school. It does not “make them stronger and more resilient,” and it is not something that is “normal” in childhood—nor should it be.

If your child tells you they are being bullied, let them know that you believe them, you are on their side, and you will help them in whatever ways are necessary to get them help and to stop the bullying. This may involve notifying the school, law enforcement, counselors, the SSSP team, and/or one of the avenues listed below. If the situation is an imminent threat to life or safety, notify the police and the school’s SSSP team. The resources section provides additional resources and information. One resource is the TxSSC’s Bullying Checklist for Schools, which helps determine whether the behavior or act meets the legal criteria of bullying or cyberbullying.

David’s Law has expanded legislation to protect all students from the effects of bullying and cyberbullying.

David's Law provisions:

  • The principal or their designee (other than a school counselor) is authorized to report criminal acts of bullying to the school district police department or the police department that serves the school. David’s Law also provides protections from disciplinary actions and civil or criminal liabilities to schools and school personnel who report criminal bullying to law enforcement.
  • The law provides an avenue for civil relief for minors who are victims of cyberbullying to seek an injunction, including a temporary restraining order, against the child who is cyberbullying, and against the parents of the child who is cyberbullying.
  • The Texas Supreme Court is responsible for providing easy to understand instructions and forms to apply for cyberbullying injunctive relief.
  • The Harassment Statute has been expanded to include internet-based communication and increased the classification for criminal cyberbullying offenses. Under the cyberbullying provision, offenses are now classified as Class A misdemeanors.
    • The Texas Penal Code has increased penalties, including jail time and higher fines for repeated electronic harassment, or for the violation of an injunction.
    • Includes the intent to “harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass” a person.
    • Includes behavior with intent for a child under 18 years of age to die by suicide.

What Should My Child Know?

The best thing that you can do for your child is to talk with them about the importance of acting with kindness and empathy towards others. Have regular conversations about what bullying and hazing are and the expectations that you have for them, such as not engaging in bullying or hazing, and the consequences they will face (in your home, at school, and legally) if they engage in it. Reassure your children that they can talk with you about anything, and that you are a team. Ensure that they know the importance of reporting all instances of bullying and cyberbullying, and how to do so, including using their schools’ anonymous reporting system if that is how they want to report it.

When having these conversations, remember that the goal is to have an open dialogue, rather than a lecture, and it is best to have these conversations on a regular basis rather than once.

Ask your child:

  • If they have ever been a target of bullying. If yes, ask about whether they told anyone, and if it is still occurring.
  • If they would feel comfortable coming to you if bullied or were a witness to bullying. If not, who would they go to?
  • If they have ever been a target of hazing. If yes, ask about whether they told anyone and if it is still occurring.
  • If they would feel comfortable coming to you if hazed or were a witness to hazing. If not, who would they go to?
  • If they know what to do if they witness someone being a target of bullying, exhibiting bullying behavior, or making online threats.
  • If they have ever witnessed cyberbullying. What did they do? How did they feel? What would they do if they were a target?
  • If they have ever engaged in bullying or cyberbullying.
  • If they know how to anonymously report?
  • If they know how to intervene and be an “upstander”?

What does it mean to be an "upstander"?

There are often witnesses to bullying. When witnesses intervene, they are called “upstanders.” Fifty-seven percent of the time, bullying stops within 10 seconds when an upstander intervenes (Espalage, D., Pigott, T., Polanin, J. (2012). Role play with your child about how they can intervene, either directly or indirectly, when they witness bullying. Indirect intervention includes telling a teacher, parent, or another trusted adult, or pulling the target of the bullying aside and saying “I saw what she did. I am so sorry that is happening. What can I do to help?”, sitting with them at lunch, or walking with them to a class. It also includes using the school’s anonymous reporting system. The important thing for your child to understand is the importance of doing something, and not minimizing or ignoring what is happening.

How do I get involved?

Be a partner with your child’s school. You can take the David’s Law anti-bullying pledge with your child, pledging to not use your devices as a weapon. You can also join the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) or start a Kindness campaign in your child’s school. David’s Legacy Foundation has additional ways that you can get involved on their website.