A well-intentioned antibullying strategy has been lighting up social networks this week. I applaud those behind it for their understandable desire to protect children from the cruelty of some of their peers.
But fining the bully’s parents? Not the ticket.
The City Council of Monona, Wis., passed a measure May 20 that allows police officers to ticket parents whose kids are repeat offenders. Before being ticketed, a parent or guardian must be informed in writing by an officer of a separate bullying violation by the same child within the past 90 days.
A ticket is a municipal code violation, not a criminal offense. Still, liable parents will be fined $114. Subsequent violations within the same year carry fines of $177 each, no small chunk of change.
Those behind the ordinance see it being used only as a last resort for intractable parents who won’t take responsibility for their children’s troubling and potentially violent behavior. I understand the sentiment. Bullying, as any kid on the receiving end can tell you, is hell.
Bullied kids have more anxiety, lower self-esteem, are more likely to suffer from depression and complain about headaches, stomachaches and sleep problems. Obviously, schoolwork can suffer, especially if the child is too afraid to walk back into the building.
The scenario is excruciating for a bullied kid’s parents and other concerned adults, too, who would do anything to make it stop. When KMSP-TV asked viewers to share their thoughts on the fine, they received well over 400 comments. Many responses were in strong support of the effort in Monona, a town of about 7,600 residents just outside of Madison, Wis.
Interestingly, you won’t find Curt Carpenter in that group. Few school leaders are more compassionate or more passionate about ending bullying than Carpenter, principal of Clear Springs Elementary School in Minnetonka.
Carpenter served on the Governor’s Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying and has worked to implement a viable antibullying program in his school, using the gold-standard Olweus Bullying Prevention Program developed at Clemson University and available through Hazelden Publishing.
“I’m not the expert,” Carpenter said Wednesday as he watched many of his 768 elementary school students leap off buses and out of cars to begin their last day of school.
“But the key to bullying prevention became so clear as I watched the kids come in. It’s relationships.”
Relationships between teachers and students, between Carpenter and his staff, between children and other children and, maybe most important, between those stubborn parents and the adults who care for their children every day.
We’ve come a long way in our understanding of bullying. We know what it is — physically or emotionally hurtful actions that are repeated and intentional. These actions can be overt, such as hitting or kicking, or covert, such as social exclusion or rumor-spreading. Cyberbullying has added a new layer to an old problem, with sometimes chilling outcomes.
Yet, we know little about why bullies act the way they do. The adage that bullies hurt others because they’re hurting inside is true — sometimes. But Carpenter appreciates that every story is different, “especially when it comes to children. It’s about their home life, and how they’re feeling when they walk into the school.”
That’s why he and I share a concern about unintended negative consequences of approaches like fines. What if the bullying child is being abused at home and was lashing out because of it? Adding financial pressures to an already stressed-out household could put the child in further danger.
And what if the parents are at their wits’ end about helping their child? Slapping a fine on them only isolates and humiliates them further, and may make them less likely to reach out for help.
“It’s very rare to have parents who are defensive and don’t want to help,” Carpenter said. “Parents are embarrassed, they feel remorse. I do appreciate the strong desire to root out bullying, but fining and punishment are not the solution.”
Developing strong relationships is. One key component of the Olweus program is making sure everyone has a stake in prevention. That means the child who is bullying and the child who is being bullied, as well as teachers, principals, school custodians and bystanders.
“This levels the playing field,” said Olweus trainer Claire McKinney, noting that the program is used in more than 6,000 schools nationwide. “It’s about changing behaviors, not just of the child who is doing the bullying, but of everybody in the room.”
The program has reduced bullying by as much as 70 percent.
So let’s not fine folks. Let’s bring them in and, in Carpenter’s words, ask them, “How are we going to fix this?”
“When you involve the bully in the solution and they truly make it right by taking the steps needed, that’s the way to go,” Carpenter said. “If we have a great relationship with the parent, 99 times out of 100 we’ll get to the bottom of it and solve the problem.”