Brandy Vela was not alone.
When the 18-year-old Texas City High School senior killed herself in front of her horrified family last fall, her name was added to a tragic ledger of teenagers whose deaths can be linked, at least in part, to online bullying.
And Vela’s case stands at least a little apart from many others, in that she didn’t carry her torment alone and in silence. She told her family.
They knew about the fake Facebook profiles; the phone calls from strangers asking about sex; the insulting text messages about her physical appearance.
And so Vela’s family saw the connection between her death and bullying right away. They told as much to police.
The police, in an unusual step after suicides, issued a statement about Vela’s death and their intent to investigate the circumstances around it. In March, Texas City Police announced they had arrested two adults from Galveston in connection to Vela’s death.
Karinthya Romero, 22, was charged with stalking and online impersonation. Andres Villagomez, 21, was charged with a misdemeanor under the state’s “revenge porn” law.
The pair was charged after evidence was presented to a Galveston County grand jury. Prosecutors have not released details about the case against the two, but the implications are that Villagomez — who police described as Vela’s former boyfriend — had nude pictures of her and either shared, or threatened to share, those photos publicly.
Romero is accused of making the fake social media profiles that dogged Vela in the months before her death.
None of the charges are specifically called cyberbullying. There’s no specific charge of that in Texas. Instead, police and prosecutors turned to a handful of laws, most created in the past 15 years, meant to prosecute people who abuse others through the use of electronics.
But Vela’s case, and the continued creation of laws to address forms of cyber-harassment, highlight one of the main issues in this modern age: it’s not a one-definition problem.
Where the bullies are
Generally, cyberbullying is defined as any form of electronic communication used to continually or repeatedly harass, intimidate or threaten.
In practice, cyberbullying can take myriad forms. It can happen on cellphones, or on any one of dozens of social media websites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Those three together claim more than 1 billion monthly users, providing easy platforms to create and spread threatening or demeaning information on a global scale 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
They are tools frequently used by bullies, experts say.
So is Snapchat, on which pictures and messages can be broadcast, only to disappear in a matter of seconds.
All the sites are similar, in that they can be accessed on phones, tablets and computers. Users can send private messages to each other, or make public posts that can be seen by a wider audience.
All of the sites have been criticized for the way they handle reports of harassment and abuse, and, experts say, it’s not so easy for parents to handle it either.
“They’re on everything,” said Julie Southworth, principal of Texas City’s Blocker Middle School. “We can’t keep up with them. It’s really hard for parents to monitor activities because they’re constantly finding new avenues.”
Police, too, say it’s hard to handle cyberbullying cases. Vela’s family reported the online abuse to police and school officials in the year before her death. They were told little could be done, because the bullying did not cause injury and because the bullies themselves were difficult to trace through fake accounts.
“One thing people do not understand is that my family reported this to police several times and all they could do was take a report,” said Michelle Vela, Brandy Vela’s 16-year-old sister. “I was on the phone with Brandy when she made the decision to take her life. The last thing I remember her saying was ‘I came too far, I can’t come back.’”
Who are the victims?
Vela doesn’t fit the typical narrative of a cyberbullying victim — a young student tormented by classmates in fledgling social media circles.
At 18, she was quickly moving to a life of independence. She was planning to move into her own apartment about the time of her death, her father, Raul Vela, said.
A recent study by Florida Atlantic University’s Cyberbullying Research Center, found that cyberbullying typically starts much earlier than age 18, however.
The study, using a national sample of 5,600 children between the ages of 12 and 17, found that 34 percent of students had experienced cyberbullying in their lifetimes, and 17 percent of those said the bullying had happened within 30 days.
A far greater number, 70 percent of the students surveyed, said someone had spread rumors about them online. Two-thirds of students who experienced cyberbullying said it affected their ability to learn and made them feel unsafe.
Rumors and mean comments were the most common forms of bullying, the study found. While those might seem minor to mature adults, that’s beside the point, one authority argues.
“It isn’t your evaluation that kids have been harmed or my evaluation, we really need to push into what the child has to say” said Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at Florida Atlantic University. “If they feel harmed emotionally or psychologically, then we should absolutely take them at their word.”
Experts stress there isn’t a straight-line connection between bullying and suicide. Most children who are bullied don’t commit suicide, and not every teen suicide victim was bullied.
However, bullying can have a greater effect on people already more susceptible to suicidal thoughts, especially those thought to be “different” from their peers, such as LGBT teens or teens with disabilities or who suffer from depression.
Leo Vasquez’s son, Matthew, is one of those people. Earlier this month, Vasquez told the Texas House of Representatives’ Committee on Public Education that his son was targeted by bullies when he was a high school freshman, and after he was diagnosed with lymphoma and began receiving cancer treatments.
Anonymous bullies created Twitter accounts with names like “Matt’s Bald Head,” and “Matt Isn’t Human” and posted mocking pictures of the boy.
They sent him messages, too; some suggesting he should kill himself.
Vasquez said he, too, went to police, and was told nothing could be done.
“We worried every day that it wouldn’t be enough,” Vasquez said. “I slept in a chair and watched him overnight. He took so many pills that I was afraid he might take more than he needed to.”
Matthew survived and Vasquez has joined other parents, including the Velas, to call for laws to address cyberbullying in Texas.
David Molak, a 16-year-old student at Alamo Heights High School outside San Antonio, killed himself on Jan. 4, 2016. It was the third time he had tried to do so, his family said.
Molak’s family said he had been bullied about his appearance by six to 10 unknown people in the hours before his death through a group messaging app.
The family later said the bullying had begun at least three months before Molak’s suicide. They showed Instagram threads in which he was accused of having AIDS and called a “monkey.”
As with Vela, the San Antonio Police Department investigated bullying claims that arose after Molak’s death. Two bullying incidents related to Molak were reported to the Alamo Heights Independent School District in October.
In May 2016, San Antonio police announced there would be no charges against the people accused of bullying Molak because there was insufficient evidence.
Molak’s family has since started a foundation that advocates for adding a cyberbullying definition to the state education code, and making bullying a crime, even if it occurs outside of a school-sponsored or school-related activity.
It would require schools to report incidents of online threats and harassment to local law enforcement and change civil court discovery laws to allow the subpoena of electronic data from accused bullies ahead of a lawsuit.
It would also make “suicide baiting,” urging a minor to kill himself through electronic communication, a Class A misdemeanor. In Texas, such crimes are punishable by up to a year in jail.
The proposal is called “David’s Law,” and has drawn the support of families, including the Velas, whose children have killed themselves after being bullied.
“I think the overarching theme of the two cases are very similar,” Maurine Molak, David’s mother, said during a March anti-bullying rally in La Marque. “It’s an overarching theme that we’re hearing way too much these days.
“Kids have told me what they’ve endured, how they’ve felt suicidal, how they’ve cut themselves,” Molak said. “It’s almost like this is a new phenomenon and nobody knows what to do about it.”
The bills have received committee hearings in both the House and the Senate, although neither chamber has moved forward to vote with less than 30 days left in the session.
What else is being done?
While that effort is underway in Austin, communities such as Texas City are trying to address cyberbullying in their own ways.
The Texas City Police Department has brought in behavioral therapists to participate in community meetings about cyberbullying and teen suicides with the hope of creating a support network that victims can use when they’re having trouble.
At Texas City ISD, the school has introduced a new phone application with which students can report cyberbullying anonymously. That will help the school be more aware of problems, said Southworth, the middle school principal.
“If you don’t know about it, you can’t deal with it,” she said
Other school districts are teaching teens how to tend to their digital footprint and to be aware of what they post on social media.
“It will all go back to you in the end,” said Gabby Daughenbaugh, 13, an eighth-grader at Victory Lakes Intermediate School in League City.
“If you hurt my friends with your comments, I’ll direct-message you and say, ‘That’s not cool. I’ll tell my friends, ‘Hey, they’re being stupid.’”
Emily McNeal, 14, once got a hateful text from a classmate. It was a specific threat, but Clear Creek Independent School District asked The Daily News not to expose the specific wording of that threat.
The text upset Emily, who is one of Gabby’s classmates at Victory Lakes.
“I told them to stop, and then I told my mom,” Emily said. “I thought, ‘What did I do wrong?’ I had to distance myself.”
She still had to go to school with this person who threatened her and she still chose to be kind and smile, she said. She didn’t smile as she explained it.
Emily’s advice to other teens who get cruel texts or messages is a straightforward formula.
“First, confront them, and if it keeps happening, tell someone,” Emily said.