David Molak’s family vividly remembers the moment their adventurous and upbeat teenager turned into someone who was afraid to leave to the house and slowly lost his will to live.
It was on October 21, 2015, and a classmate of the 16-year-old sophomore at San Antonio’s Alamo Heights High School, compared his face to a monkey’s. Hundreds of comments then followed — including one that said he should be “six feet under” and another adding that he belonged “in a coffin.”
“He was so distraught,” his mother Maurine tells PEOPLE. “He said he could never go back to school. He just felt like everyone hated him.”
The bullying followed him everywhere, both online and in the halls at school. Despite all of Maurine and her husband Matt’s efforts — which included transferring him to another school — he attempted suicide twice before he ultimately took his own life on Jan. 3, 2016.
“He felt so low and scared,” says his father, Matt, 55. “He couldn’t take it anymore.”
At 1 a.m. on January 4, Maurine found her son hanging from a tree in their backyard. She had reported him missing two hours earlier, but it was only after police had tracked his cell phone signal, then sent out a helicopter to assist with the search, that they located him behind the family’s house.
“There are no words to describe that day,” says Maurine, a bookkeeper. “It was a nightmare.”
Turning a Tragedy Into a Mission
After spending four months in a fog, she says, and unable to do anything as she waited for “the nightmare to be over,” Maurine, Matt and their two older sons, Chris, 20, and Cliff, 26, decided they had to do everything in their power to help children, parents and school administrators in preventing another tragedy.
“People were reaching out to me, mom to mom, telling me their similar stories of what they had been through,” she says. “Even kids reached out to me to tell me stories of what they had endured online and how they knew how David felt.”
She added: “It was at that point that I knew that I had to try to help these other people that were suffering from this and that I needed to get involved.”
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Early on, says Matt, people came to them saying they wanted to help. Two months after David’s suicide, they launched David’s Legacy Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to cracking down on cyberbullying. With help from politicians, lawyers, school administration and their community, they drafted legislation called David’s Law, which makes cyberbullying in Texas a crime.
It also gives schools the authority to investigate cyber abuse that occurs after school hours, including parent notification requirements and anonymous reporting. The law went into effect in September and they hope to expand it to other states in the near future.
“Throughout this whole process, we just learned how pervasive this problem was across the country and really around the world,” says Matt, an accountant. “Some school administrators were saying it’s the biggest problem that their schools are facing right now.”
The family also created the David’s Law Anti-Cyber Bullying Pledge, which is a sticker that you put on your cellphone or device which reads, “I pledge to never use my device as weapon.”
“People who have it on their phones now say that people ask them about it. They then tell them the story of David and everybody that they’ve talked to wants to be a part of the solution,” says Maurine. “They want a sticker. They want to put that on their phone. They want to be part of a movement to make a change.”
The story they tell of David is one of a young boy who “had such a heart for the marginalized in society,” says Maurine. He regularly wrote letters to a child the family sponsors in Uganda (whom he called his “brother in another land”) and was curious about everything he encountered.
His brother Cliff, a medical student, says David was a prankster and found the humor in hiding his brothers’ cellphone chargers.
“He loved to mess with us,” he says. “He was a great kid.”
Looking back, both Cliff and Chris say they were shocked when they heard about the bullying and tried to stop it.
“He didn’t want to be perceived as weak or targeted,” says Chris. “David and I never truly talked about that incident or being bullied in general. I would kind of start to intervene sometimes on social media. I was just trying to protect him.”
A few days after David’s death, Cliff, who says he was in a “very dark place,” posted on Facebook about embracing people’s differences and how, just hours before David ended his life, he’d seen the “tangible pain” in his brother’s eyes.
“I wanted people to take a little time out of their day and just think about David,” says Cliff.
Adds Chris: “[David] had a lot of life to live outside of high school and outside of his abuse.”
The Molak family hopes that their tragedy and the work they’ve done since David’s death will truly save lives.
“I can’t think of anything worse in life than having to go through it without one of my children,” says Maurine. “There has to be some good that comes out of something so terrible.”