Should Parents of Bullies Pay? Wisconsin Town Thinks So.

Photo: Corbis/Najlah FeannyThe Wisconsin town of Monona has taken a big step in the effort to fight bullying with an unusual new law, threatening to fine both the bully and his or her parents upward of $114.

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“We don’t have a bullying problem any more than anywhere else, but it’s been escalating nationally, we just want to try to take an extra step to fight it,” Monona Police Sgt. Ryan Losby told Yahoo! Shine. “It’s for the parents out there who either won’t do anything to try and stop their kids from bullying, or for those who encourage it.”

Losby, who drafted the law after being inspired by a similar, 2010 law in nearby Milton, said the new ordinance is meant only as a last resort when dealing with parents of bullies who refuse to cooperate with the school and police. The part that targets moms and dads, called the “parental responsibility” piece of the law, can fine the parents of a bully $114 for a first offense and $177 for subsequent ones, but only after sufficient warning, in writing.

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Other parts of the broad ordinance prohibit retaliation for reporting bullies, as well as general harassment between adults, subjecting all scofflaws—including a child bully, as long as he or she is over the age of 12—to those same fines.

“Technically, both the bully and the parent could be cited at the same time,” Losby said. “But it would be very rare.”

While all states except Montana currently have anti-bullying laws in place, local ordinances are not as across-the-board. New York City’s Department of Education, though, proposed a law just this week that would require staff members who witness bullying to report it to authorities within 10 days. (Similarly, a Wisconsin state law proposed in March would fine teachers $200 for not reporting bullying incidents.)

And in Milton, the law that inspired Losby levies fines of $100 to $500 against proven bullies.

Monona’s law is unique, though, because of how it targets parents. "This is the first time that we have heard of issuing a citation to parents because their child is bullying," Julie Hertzog, director of PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center, told Shine. "Communities are clearly looking for new ways to deal with the issue."

And, though their reviews are mixed, most experts agree it’s at least step in the right direction.

“I think it sends a message that is positive, which is we take bullying seriously and, as a parent, you have to take it seriously, too,” national anti-bully expert, speaker and author Joel Haber told Shine. He added that the law takes the important step of informing parents about what their kids are up to, and that it’s “healthy” just having discussion around the law. “Whether it will work or not,” he said, “we don’t know.”

Ross Ellis, CEO of the STOMP Out Bullying advocacy organization, told Shine she thought the law could be a good tool when dealing with uncooperative parents. “I think it’s really important, because the parents need to step up,” she said. “Still, you can fine the parents, but the kids need to get help. There should be a part of the law that says if you’re fined, you should have to get your kid help, as well.” Because, she wondered, is a parent going to be so upset about getting fined that they’ll then take it out on the kid who was bullying in the first place? “So it’s good,” she said, “but I think it needs more.”

Shawn Gaylord, director of public policy at the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which advocates nationally for anti-bullying law and policies, was not sold on the law. “Although we believe that educators, parents, and community members should be engaged collectively around school climate and issues related to bullying, a fine on families, however well-intentioned, is not a productive contribution to the conversation and would disproportionately impact those with limited incomes,” he told Shine, adding that it was troubling that people get fined at the discretion of the police. All in all, he added, the approach gets parents involved too late, and emphasis should instead be on teaching empathy and compassion early on.
 
Finally, Brenda High, whose son Jared took his own life at 13 after being bullied at school, and who now runs the watchdog Bully Police USA, said she felt the law would help make the schools more accountable, as well as parents, which was encouraging. But despite the loss of her son, she added that it’s the rare parent who wouldn’t try to help out after learning about a child who was bullying. “I’d say in 75 percent of bullying cases, the parents have no clue, and are shocked when they hear about it,” she said.

And she agrees with Ellis that the solution should go deeper than a fine. “If the bullying doesn’t stop after that, I think they ought to require that the kid be taken out of the school, because you’ve got to wonder what is going on in the mind of a child who thinks it’s okay to hurt another child,” she said. “There’s something emotionally wrong with that child, and they need help.”

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