William, 9, has been in trouble all year.
In October, he was caught fighting on the bus. The school suspended him from riding it for three days.
In March, he was reprimanded for slapping another boy. The punishment was more severe; he was put in an in-school suspension class.
William’s school has labeled the third-grader a bully, his mother said. She insists he isn’t.
“That goes on his record,” she said.
A video recording of the fight on the bus shows another child instigating the scuffle, William’s mother said. And the coach who reported the slapping incident wasn’t properly supervising the children, she said.
But bully or not, William’s mother knows he’s already on a path. She worries that if he continues this behavior, he could be subject to penalties that only get harsher and harsher.
At worst, she fears he could end up in the juvenile justice system. That’s a place no mother wants her child to be.
Since the time bullying became one of the nation’s biggest buzzwords, schools and law enforcement officials have had to grapple not only with understanding the thorny issue, but with finding the best ways to deal with bullies. That has not been simple.
With widespread media attention on bullying as a “national epidemic,” schools began reacting in a way that matched the anxiety surrounding the issue, said Robert Brooks, an associate professor of criminal justice at Worcester State University in Massachusetts.
“There was this hysteria in bringing in the criminal charges,” Brooks said. “We saw bullying transformed from a problem where ‘boys will be boys’ to a national social problem. Unfortunately, we criminalize social problems.”
But bullying responses aren’t uniform procedures under Texas law. The state’s 2011 bill, House Bill 1942, defines bullying, allows a bully should be transferred into another class or school, and requires teachers to have bullying-related training. And instead of laying out specific procedures for handling bullying, the law also requires school districts to draft bullying policies that meet minimum criteria, meaning that in practice the problem is handled differently everywhere.
“We have this very loosely formed system of everything, from bullying to our education system,” said Ellen Marrus, the director of the Center for Children, Law & Policy at the University of Houston. “There are going to be some differences, but there should be some standards also. We should be clear that bullying is something we’re not going to accept, that it’s not appropriate behavior.”
Missing the point
Alicia Raia-Hawrylak, a pre-doctorate fellow in sociology at Rutgers University who has completed studies on the criminalization of bullying, said federal protections need to expand to account for discrepancies in state laws.
“I think there’s a lot of gaps in the federal recommendations and guidelines,” Raia-Hawrylak said. “There should be some standardized procedures in identifying these types of incidents and responding to them.”
If police decide to intervene, some of the more common charges for bullying-related incidents include assault, aggravated assault, terroristic threat, child pornography, disorderly conduct, harassment and stalking.
In the age of cyberbullying, child pornography is a common charge because of sexting, Marrus said. But taking a child into custody on child pornography completely misses the issue, she said.
“We’re not dealing with the real problem,” Marrus said. “Because if you charge a child with pornography, they’re charged with a sex crime and they end up on the sex offender registry. That doesn’t stop bullying. It has nothing to do with that, and we’re not dealing with the problem that people have in that area.”
More drastic measures
William was also in trouble last year. He attended a different elementary school. His second-grade teacher had a marked a circle on the floor with the word “shame” on it. She often made William stand in the circle, his mother said.
Then there was the day that William’s teacher reported that he was planning to harm the school. His mother asked “how” and “with what.” No one had an answer for her until the end of the day.
William was going to bring a military hand grenade to the school, the administrators finally told her.
The second-grader was expelled.
Is criminalizing the answer?
Since schools have begun the so-called crackdown on bullying, many experts have flocked to the idea that criminalizing students for that behavior isn’t the best way of handling the situation.
At Galveston Independent School District, Chief of Police LeeRoy Amador is charged with stopping bullying before it gets out of hand. Only in rare circumstances, however, should school police intervene and take a student into custody, he said.
“I want to make sure that the administration has exerted all means before they come to us, because we are the last resort,” Amador said.
Amador said he was adamantly opposed to the idea of criminalizing a student based on an act of bullying, except in violent or extreme cases.
“I do not like that and we have to stop it,” he said.
Amador is one of many people who are opposed to criminalizing a student on bullying-related charges. The idea, which has gained traction in recent years, is mostly based on the notion that putting a student in the criminal justice system causes more problems for a child who is still young enough to atone for their actions.
In Texas’ education code, bullying is defined as verbal, written, electronic or physical conduct that has the effect of physically harming a student, damaging their property or placing them in fear of harm. Another iteration of bullying, as defined in the code, is behavior that is “severe, persistent, and persuasive enough” that a child’s educational environment is compromised.
Galveston County has seen increased relevance in the subject with the death of Brandy Vela, who committed suicide after being subject to repeated bullying and harassment by anonymous users online. One person, an ex-boyfriend, has since been charged with a misdemeanor under the state’s “revenge porn” law, and a second person has been charged for allegedly stalking, harassing and impersonating Vela online. Both were legally adults at the time they were charged.
Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, is now trying to pass “David’s Law” through the Texas Senate. The law would criminalize cyberbullying as a misdemeanor.
These sorts of laws are necessary but difficult to enforce because bullying is changing so rapidly, said Ian Fraser, a psychology professor at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, Canada.
“Bullying will continue at a pace and will change at a pace because of the internet,” Fraser said. “It’s going to be difficult for us to keep up with all the changes. They’re going to be happening at the speed of light.”
But although most educators would argue some students do deserve punishment in terrible instances of bullying, many are still wary about the idea of slapping a criminal charge on every student that is caught.
If bullying gets to the point where a student has to be arrested or charged, that sort of punishment can limit them in the future, Amador said.
“We want them to be able to go to college and to succeed in life,” he said. “Because there was a minor infraction they made, that’s going to come back to haunt them.”
Others fear the “school-to-prison pipeline,” an idea speculating that when students are ticketed or charged for crimes in schools, that sort of behavior funnels the child all the way into the adult criminal justice system.
Punishment for bullying in Texas schools is generally handled by the schools’ administration. Having police in schools has gotten in the way of that, Brooks said.
“You’re putting an armament of the criminal justice system into the school full time,” Brooks said. “The criminal justice system really takes precedent over the school’s disciplinary process.”
Back in the fold
Most of the bullies Amador has worked with are being bullied themselves, and punishing them with a criminal charge without looking at the overarching issue is a problem, he said.
Many students who bully are bullied either by another student, a teacher, or a parent at home, Amador said.
“If they’re getting ridiculed or they’re being bullied at home, the child is lashing out in the wrong way. It’s an outcry,” Amador said. “To look at the law violation and not to look at the big picture, it’s not fair to the child.”
Punishing a student in school is contradictory to the purpose of education, Brooks said.
“The answer to a kid’s problem is not kicking them out of school; it’s folding them back in,” Brooks said. “It’s a disservice to the goals of education, which is to help kids become better citizens. And you do that by helping them tackle their problems.”
Where do I go from here?
William’s mother had a $25 gift certificate to a book store last Mother’s Day. She bought William a children’s dictionary and got herself a candy bar with the change.
She has accordion files full of letters, schedules and notices related to her son’s life. She has his perfect attendance certificates, his report cards that prove he made good grades and single pages of yellow legal pad full of handwritten notes. She has boxes full of pages he colored in Sunday school.
She also has letters from agencies she’s reached out to for help: the attorney general’s office, Lone Star Legal Aid, NAACP and the Texas Education Agency. She’s asked them all for help on what to do for her son.
“I want to clear my son’s name,” she said.
She had started with the school district, but officials wrote her back and said they couldn’t change her son’s records. The Texas Education Agency wrote her and said the school didn’t do anything wrong.
She asked the school for help, but no one offered her any suggestions.
“Do you all have a case worker or someone to help us in all this mess?” she said she asked the principal. The school didn’t, she said.
She has three letters from William’s school about his problems this year. The letters are formal and long, full of legal jargon. Near the end, in the middle of a paragraph, the writer says William’s mom has 10 days to appeal.
“I need someone skilled to help me,” she said.
No counselors at school are helping her or William, she said. When William was in his in-school suspension, he didn’t get any lessons.
She thinks the schools send out the lengthy letters just to keep parents like her quiet, she said.
She worries his future is already compromised and that in just a few years he’ll be sent to an alternative school or a juvenile correctional facility.
“Where do I go for help?” William’s mother asked. “Do you know someone who I can call?”
Reporter Valerie Wells contributed to this article.