As part of an effort to address the safety and security of students in Texas public schools, the Texas Legislature enacted Senate Bill 11, which includes provisions requiring new curriculum for students, kindergarten through grade 12, in the area of mental health and “digital citizenship.” Some school districts may already offer similar curriculum, but now they are mandated by the state.
Effective immediately, Senate Bill 11 requires school districts to offer an enrichment curriculum that now includes health, with emphasis on (1) physical health, including the importance of proper nutrition and exercise, and (2) mental health, including instruction about mental health conditions, substance abuse, skills to manage emotions, establishing and maintaining positive relationships, and responsible decision-making; and (3) suicide prevention, including recognizing suicide-related risk factors and warning signs.
The State Board of Education will also require school districts to incorporate curriculum on “digital citizenship,” including information regarding the potential criminal consequences of cyberbullying. The Legislature defines “digital citizenship” to mean “the standards of appropriate, responsible, and healthy online behavior, including the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act on all forms of digital communication.”
Under Texas Education Code § 37.0832, “cyberbullying” is defined as bullying that is done through the use of any electronic communication device, including through the use of a cellular or other type of telephone, a computer, a camera, electronic mail, instant messaging, text messaging, a social media application, an Internet website, or any other Internet-based communication tool. The prohibitions against cyberbullying apply to cyberbullying that occurs off school property or outside of a school-sponsored or school-related activity if the cyberbullying (1) interferes with a student’s educational opportunities; or (2) substantially disrupts the orderly operation of a classroom, school, or school-sponsored or school-related activity.
What are some criminal consequences for cyberbullying?
Texas Penal Code § 33.07 prohibits online impersonation and harassment. A violation under this statute occurs when a person, without the other person’s consent and with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten any person, uses the name or persona of another person to:
- create a web page on a commercial social networking site or other internet website, or
- post or send one or more messages on or through a commercial social networking site or other internet website.
Texas Penal Code § 33.07(a).
An offense under § 33.07(a) is a felony of the third degree. Postings on or through an electronic mail program or message board program (i.e., email account), do not violate Penal Code § 33.07.
Under Penal Code § 33.07(b), it is also unlawful to send electronic mail, instant messages, text messages, or similar communication that references identifying information belonging to any person without that person’s consent. Section 33.07(b) requires a showing that the person intended to cause a recipient of the communication to reasonably believe that the other person authorized or transmitted the communication, and intended to harm or defraud any person. An offense under §33.07(b) is a Class A misdemeanor, except that the offense is a third degree felony if the actor commits the offense with the intent to solicit a response by emergency personnel.
Under Penal Code § 42.07, a person commits the office of harassment if, with intent to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another, the person: (1) initiates communication and in the course of the communication makes a comment, request, suggestion, or proposal that is obscene; (2) threatens, in a manner reasonably likely to alarm the person receiving the threat, to inflict bodily injury on the person or to commit a felony against the person, a member of the person’s family or household, or the person’s property; (3) conveys, in a manner reasonably likely to alarm the person receiving the report, a false report, which is known by the conveyor to be false, that another person has suffered death or serious bodily injury; (4) causes the telephone of another to ring repeatedly or makes repeated telephone communications anonymously or in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass, or offend another; (5) makes a telephone call and intentionally fails to hang up or disengage the connection; (6) knowingly permits a telephone under the person’s control to be used by another to commit an offense under this section; (7) sends repeated electronic communications in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass, or offend another; or (8) publishes on an Internet website, including a social media platform, repeated electronic communications in a manner reasonably likely to harass, abuse, or torment another person.
An offense under this section is a Class B misdemeanor, except that the offense is a Class A misdemeanor if the actor has previously been convicted of harassment; or the offense involved repeated electronic communications publication of repeated harassing communications on an Internet website as set out in (7) and (8) above; AND the offense was committed against a child under 18 years of age with the intent that the child commit suicide; or engage in conduct causing serious bodily injury to the child. It is also a Class A misdemeanor if the actor has previously violated a temporary restraining order or injunction issued under Chapter 129A, Civil Practice and Remedies Code.
The Texas Education Code also provides for criminal penalties for certain conduct that may amount to bullying. A student commits a Class B misdemeanor under Education Code § 37.123 when a student, alone or in concert with others, intentionally engages in “disruptive activity” on the campus or property of any private or public school.
“Disruptive activities” may include, among other things: (1) obstructing or restraining the passage of a person in an exit, entrance, or hallway of a building without the authorization of the administration of the school; and (2) obstructing or restraining the passage of a person at an exit or entrance to the campus or property or preventing or attempting to prevent by force or violence or by threats of force or violence the ingress or egress of a person to or from the property or campus without the authorization of the administration of the school.
This offense is a Class B misdemeanor. Any person convicted a third time of violating this section is ineligible to attend any institution of higher education receiving funds from the State of Texas before the second anniversary of the third conviction. The statute warns, however, that it may not be construed to infringe on any right of free speech or expression guaranteed by the United States or Texas Constitutions.