While San Antonians enjoy the last remaining Christmas lights and begin New Year’s resolutions, the Molak family struggles with the loss of their beloved 16-year-old son and brother, David. Four days into 2016, David took his own life after being bullied for several months. According to the Molaks, David was a typical 16-year-old: a good, “normal” kid with a supportive family who did everything they were supposed to do and could do when David became a victim of bullying in their community. Still, the unthinkable happened. In an effort to raise awareness about bullying, David’s brother Cliff Molak took to social media and shared these words. With Cliff’s permission, we have reprinted them here, as they show the very human side of this tragedy:
Dear friends and supporters,
I first would like to thank you all for the overwhelming support you have and are continuing to provide to myself and my family. It means more to us than words can describe. What happened to my beloved brother was a tragedy. A tragedy set into motion by a boy whom I will not further empower by naming. I’ve never posted anything emotional on Facebook before as I’ve always felt it reserved for people preaching political ideals they had formulated from Buzzfeed headlines. I am writing this post to open the eyes of the Alamo Heights community and other communities around the nation. We’ve all heard the word bullying and we’ve all had to attend those stupid mandatory anti-bullying classes or seminars. I don’t know anyone, including myself, who actually paid any heed to what the lecturers had to say. To me they were a waste of time. Time away from athletics or homework or any other more appealing or less redundant activity. In hindsight, I wish more than anything people had actually listened. I saw the pain in David’s eyes three nights ago as he was added to a group text only to be made fun of and kicked out two minutes later. I spoke to him right after to comfort him and he didn’t even hear me. He stared off into the distance for what seemed like an hour. I could feel his pain. It was a tangible pain. He didn’t even have the contact information of any of the eight members who started the group text. It is important to note David had been enduring this sort of abuse for a very long time.
In today’s age, bullies don’t push you into lockers, they don’t tell their victims to meet them behind the school’s dumpster after class, they cower behind user names and fake profiles from miles away constantly berating and abusing good, innocent people. The recent advances in social media have given our generation a freedom of which has never been seen before. Freedom is a beautiful thing, however as freedom and personal liberties expand (and they rapidly are), there needs to be an equal expansion of personal accountability. Right now there is no expansion of personal accountability. The households and the school systems are failing. The only way to end the suffering in this nation whether it be from bullying or discrimination is not to highlight differences between groups of people, but to focus on the importance of accountability and ultimately character. The only way to heal this country and our communities is to accept and embrace the notion that we have to begin character building from the ground up before the elementary level or our society will never recover. The healing needs to start now before we fall even further down into the pits of evil. It is my dream for the healing of this nation to be David’s legacy. Please help me share this message.
His grieving brothers
The ripples of this young man’s life directly touched members of the ACMB team who knew him and know his family. Yet, this story resonated with our entire team as mothers, members of the San Antonio community, and concerned women who want our community to learn and grow from the Molaks’ loss. We steel our broken hearts to find meaning, assign purpose, and discover ways to spare others this pain.
There are books, after-school specials, Ted Talks, and millions of blog posts, but really, where do we begin? Today, David’s death calls us to ask, “Where do we go from here? What can we do now? And how can we best honor young David Molak?”
At ACMB, we begin at the beginning with a conversation of practical information.
What is bullying?
Sure, we know bullying can be serious. We know, as Cliff Molak stated with his heartfelt words, that cyberbullying and bullying via today’s technology can be insidious, anonymous, and occur every day. Let’s look at an accepted definition of bullying and why we need to define it.
“Bullying involves deliberate, aggressive acts targeting a particular individual repeatedly, over time, (although some researchers also count a single severe aggressive act), AND it involves a power difference between the bully and the target.” It may also involve a promise or threat of future bullying. The power over another can be physical, perceived, or anything that puts one in an advantageous position over another. In her book Gifted, Bullied and Resilient: A Brief Guide for Smart Families, San Antonio author Pamela Price states, “This power can take a number of forms, but we must remember the social kinds—the type of power wielded like a sword by manipulative little girls and boys—can be as painful to the body and mind as a punch on the jaw.” Bullying is intentional, repetitive, and hurtful.
Bullying is not “normal” child or adolescent behavior. We should never expect a child to buck up and accept bullying in any form. It’s not a rite of passage or a “stage” children pass through.
Bullying may be physical, verbal, relational (often called social), or carried out via technology (cyberbullying). Research indicates physical bullying increases in elementary school, peaks in middle school, and decreases in high school. Verbal abuse remains consistent, although research shows that verbal bullying can leave lasting effects on its victims. Relational bullying manipulates social relationships (e.g., excluding the victim from a group, spreading rumors about her/him, breaking confidences, getting others to participate in the bullying and isolation of the victim, backstabbing, posting hurtful messages on social media, cyberbullying, and more). Cyberbullying, as described by the Cyberbullying Research Center, is the “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.” Cyberbullying is exacerbated when electronic messages are accessed by many, resulting in repeated exposure and repeated harm. About 68% of teens believe cyberbullying is a serious problem. One study showed girls were more likely to be involved in relational bullying, while boys were more likely to engage in cyberbullying. As Pamela Price points out, cyberbullying is not limited to youth. No one is immune to becoming a victim or a bully.
Bullying is not meanness, rudeness, or conflict. Signe Whitson describes meanness as purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once (or maybe twice), and rudeness as inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else. Rudeness is usually spontaneous, unplanned inconsideration based on thoughtlessness, poor manners, or narcissism but not meant to actually hurt someone. An example among children may be burping in someone’s face. A rude adult may say, “Your hair looks so much better now that it’s cut.”
What are the signs a child is being bullied?
Not all bullied children will exhibit all or any of these signs. However, be sensitive to changes in your child. You know your child better than anyone. Be aware of changes in behavior, appetite, sleep patterns, and more. Trust your instincts.
Here are a few signs your child may be a victim of bullying:
- Torn, damaged, or missing pieces of clothing, books, or other belongings.
- Unexplained cuts, bruises, and scratches.
- Changing friendships; no longer engaging with others at or after school.
- Suddenly trying to avoid school or wherever the bullying takes place. (Consider this: approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day due to bullying.)
- Fearfulness: a bullied child may not want to walk or ride the bus to or from school or participate in peer activities.
- Sudden change in grades and/or loss of interest in academics.
- A noticeable change in overall mood; becoming sad, depressed, moody, or tearful.
- Difficulty sleeping, bad dreams, or insomnia.
- Changes in eating: skipping meals, binge eating, or coming home from school hungry because he/she skipped lunch and the social interactions surrounding it.
- Physical symptoms: headaches, stomachaches, loss of appetite, weight loss.
- Self-destructive behaviors: running away from home, hurting themselves, talking about suicide.
Remember, we are not perfect. We can miss signs, and some children excel at concealing their pain. However, these are some good guidelines to remember.
What if my child is a bully?
No one likes to think or talk about this, but it’s fact: If some children are bullied, then other children are bullies. Like bullying victims, bullies, too, most likely have parents, guardians, and people who love them and want to help them be the best people they can be. We’d like to believe our child could never be a bully. But part of parenting is accepting you don’t have ultimate control over your child’s actions and feelings towards others, especially when you’re not around.
Here are a few signs your child might be bully:
- Gets into physical or verbal fights.
- Has friends who are bullies.
- Shows increased aggression.
- Blames others for his/her problems and does not accept responsibility for his/her actions.
- Suddenly has extra money, snacks, toys, etc. (bullied away from a victim).
- Competitive and worries about his/her reputation and/or popularity.
- Begins having trouble in school: receives detentions, trips to the principal’s office, etc.
Some children (for example, a child with a specific physical, developmental, emotional, or mental diagnosis/disability) fall under the auspices of a “protected class,” and institutions are required to assure their protection. Sometimes the very members of these protected classes are also at the highest risk for being bullied. When children are members of a protected class, bullying may become harassment. This grants protection under federal law and falls under the civil rights law.
You can learn more information about the “risk factors” for those who are more likely to become bullies and victims of bullying here.
Your child has been bullied… Now what?
What if you believe your child is being bullied? Learning your child may be the victim of bullying sucks the air from your body, washes with overwhelming panic, and rightfully brings out the mama tiger in all of us. Keep some things in mind as you respond to your child.
First, stay calm. I’m not patronizing you; I’m reminding you. Your child needs you to be the strong one, the one who doesn’t lose it and add to his/her fears. He/she needs you to solidly handle things breath by breath in a non-judgmental manner. You want your child to keep talking to you. Wailing in sorrow or disbelief is never helpful—save that for the shower or a private call with your partner or a friend. Reassure your child you’ll address the bullying and you’ll protect him/her. Listen and encourage him/her to talk freely. Don’t blame. A victim never deserves blame and rarely keeps those lines of communication open.
Don’t tell your child to ignore the bully, and don’t ignore your child’s concerns. Burying your head in the sand won’t make the bully disappear. Telling your child to ignore the bully reinforces a lack of power and may shut down communication. Remember, bullying is abnormal behavior. It is not “kids being kids.”
If bullying involves social media, many advise shutting down all accounts immediately and getting new cell phone numbers, emails, etc. Depending on the situation, consider sending the bullies a message via social media before closing accounts. You may advise them to stop the behavior or you will be speaking with all the parents and the school. Local San Antonio writer Debi Pfitzenmier provides excellent guidelines on handling bullying occurring outside school.
Don’t let your child participate in peer-to-peer meetings with the bully. This re-victimizes the victim. Often, bullies state what adults want to hear so they can return to normal activities ASAP, often laughing about the meeting within minutes of completion. This type of conflict resolution with bullying is rarely successful. It’s akin to forcing the words “I’m sorry” from the mouth of a toddler: the bully learns nothing and usually returns to bullying, perhaps slightly more covertly.
Do involve your child in planning the situation’s response. Address possible outcomes, including bully retaliation, along with options to deal with it.
If the bullying is occurring at school and ongoing, talk with the school and develop a specific plan for your child. However, don’t allow the school to take action until you’ve been able to review the plan with your child and meet with involved staff. The plan needs a timeline for school accountability while correcting the problem. First, let the school contact the bully’s parents. The bully’s family should be notified, and appropriate actions should be taken. If the school drops the ball on this step, or if the bullying continues, contact the parents of the bully directly.
Identify your child’s go-to adults at school. These are teachers, coaches, etc. they trust and feel comfortable with. Make sure your child is safe and protected at the school at all times, without disruption or presentation of your child as a weakened victim.
If you don’t get the attention, time, or solutions you’re looking for, be a “pleasant nuisance.” Contact your child’s guidance counselor, teacher, principal, and psychologist on a daily and/or weekly basis. It is usually helpful to remain calm and professional without uncontrolled emotion. You’re on the same side, and you both want to provide a safe environment for your child and all children in the school.
Please don’t accept a school or the bully’s parents saying, “We can’t do anything,” or, “Kids will be kids.” Keep yourself focused, and don’t stop being your child’s voice and advocate. Your child depends on you.
If you don’t get what you need from the school, visit your local police department. Let them know other avenues did not work to your satisfaction. Ask an officer to visit the bully and his/her family.
Lastly, expand your child’s social circles. Seek out new friends and experiences through clubs, church, and other groups. Many communities have YMCAs, Girl and Boy Scouts, park districts with classes, library programs, drama clubs, etc.
What is San Antonio doing about bullying?
In response to national and state concerns about the impact of bullying on students, the 82nd Texas Legislature approved measures that require school districts to develop anti-bullying policies and interventions. It further directed the Texas Department of State Health Services, in collaboration with the Texas Education Agency (TEA), to provide an annually updated list of best practice-based early mental health intervention and suicide prevention programs for implementation in general education settings.
In San Antonio, the Alamo Area Teen Suicide Prevention Coalition (AATSPC) was established in 2015 and focuses on efforts within the community for education, health, mental health, support services, and advocacy organizations. They are seeking input and support from community members, especially teens. Requests for more information can be sent to Jeannie Von Stultz, Ph.D., at [email protected]
The following resources are available in San Antonio to assist with counseling, as well as medical and crisis needs:
The Ecumenical Center in San Antonio offers various parenting programs and counseling support, along with a group of online videos including some from from Barbara Colorosa, well-known author of The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander.
San Antonio Police Crisis Intervention Team consists of trained mental health police officers who respond when you cannot get to a hospital or crisis care clinic.
State and national resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (call 1-800-273-TALK  24 hours a day, seven days a week)
Gifted, Bullied and Resilient: A Brief Guide for Smart Families by San Antonio’s Pamela Price. The title is a misnomer. This book is for ANY family with children. A quick read, Pamela wastes no words and fills the pages with practical information and excellent resources. If you have children, you will walk away with something from its 72 pages.
Connect for Respect (C4R) is the National PTA’s initiative to help students, parents, and educators create school climates full of safe and supportive peer relationships.
Check out the KnowBullying app by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to boost your knowledge and help improve parenting communication with your children. Easily accessed, it includes tips for conversation starters, warning signs, and reminders, with a social media section and a section for educators.