Threatening parents with a fine might be one way to stop a bully.
Several towns in Wisconsin now will fine parents who refuse to keep their children and teens from bullying others — a novel tactic that’s sparking interest from around the globe.
Shawano, Wis., a town of 9,300 people about 40 miles northwest of Green Bay, is the latest to pass an ordinance that holds parents of bullies accountable. Parents could be fined $366 for the first offense and $681 for the second offense in a year.
“The threat of a fine is a necessary evil,” Shawano Police Chief Mark Kohl said Thursday. It’s a consequence for those who say they don’t want to help fix the problem, he said.
But the fine is a last resort. Before parents are fined, they’re given a warning that’s meant to inform them about the bullying and get them help if they need it, said Kohl — points also made by chiefs in Plover and Monona, which have passed similar laws.
“We can’t ticket our way out of bullying,” said Kohl, whose own daughter was once bullied.
“There were no options when my daughter was bullied,” he said. “That was my little baby girl and I felt helpless. We had no recourse and we didn’t know what to do.”
This is not about the fine, Kohl said. “It’s about getting people to work together. … It’s about getting some parents to act more like parents.”
While a few critics have complained that the ordinances smack of a “nanny state” and government overreach, Kohl and the other chiefs argue that it’s no different from when a parent walks into a store with a child who breaks the expensive dish on the shelf. The parent pays, he said.
“Holding parents accountable is just common sense,” said Plover Police Chief Dan Ault. His town, which is about 5 miles south of Stevens Point in central Wisconsin, enacted the fines last fall. He helped pass a similar ordinance when he was the chief in Oconto.
Schools across the country have launched campaigns to prevent bullying, “and that’s good,” Ault said.
But there’s more that has to be done, especially when the bullying occurs off school grounds, he said.
“When I was a kid, we didn’t have social media, so you couldn’t take my picture and smear it across the entire world,” Ault said.
In fact, when he was growing up, kids being bullied usually were told to toughen up and fight back.
“Bullying is at a whole different level than it was 20 years ago,” said Ault, who was spurred to action because of the correlation between bullying and teen suicides, truancy and school violence.
“We didn’t have school shooters then,” he said. “Now we do.” Far too many students stay home from school because they fear the bully, Ault said. A few pick up guns to kill out of revenge and a staggering number of teens kill themselves to escape their tormentors, he said.
Ault was struck by the words of a father, whose son was bullied relentlessly and then killed himself.
Looking for answers, the father confronted the parents of the bully and was told that they had no idea it was happening. “That resonated with me,” Ault said.
With an ordinance and fine in place, officers can knock on a parent’s door and start a conversation, he said. “This ordinance doesn’t allege that the parents are bad parents. … Some parents say, ‘I can’t control my kid, and now I’m going to get fined?’ And we say, ‘Yeah, but first we’re gong to help you.’ … If parents show us they’re doing something, we’re not going to write the fine. We’re giving the parent an incentive to listen to us because some parents don’t want to listen.”
Ault said his department has issued two warnings since the ordinance went into effect late last year and, as far as he knows, the bullying ended.
Monona Chief Walter Ostrenga has issued three warnings but no tickets since the fines — $124 for the first offense and $187 for the second — went into effect in 2013. Two of the warnings went to the same family for two different kids. They have since moved out of Monona, which is east of Madison.
The ordinance allows authorities to say that bullying isn’t just wrong, it’s against the law, Ostrenga said.
After three years, it’s hard to say if the threat of fines works, he said. “If you have a marked police car sitting at an intersection and no one is blowing a red light, you don’t know if they’re obeying the law because they see you there or whether they would have obeyed it anyways.”
Expecting that few fines will be imposed, the three police chiefs say the bully ordinance wasn’t designed to be a “moneymaker.”
But the fines have generated attention in their towns and in destinations far and wide with the help of the Internet. The chiefs have fielded calls from news media from Canada to Australia and received thank-you e-mails from victims scarred from being bullied long ago.
“It’s novel,” Kohl said. “The hook for the media is giving tickets to parents for not [acting like] parents.”
Ault would love to see other cities in Wisconsin and across the country do the same.
In Minnesota, Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie, who once served on a school board, said that he doesn’t know any city officials considering a similar measure but that he can understand why the Wisconsin cities have. “If parents aren’t coming to the table, you might have to do something like this,” he said.
Stopping the bullies could make a huge difference, said Plover’s Chief Ault. “If I can stop one school shooting from happening, that’s pretty successful,” he said. “If I can keep one kid from killing themselves, that has a profound impact.”