At a meeting last fall, some parents pleaded with members of the Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., school board to do something about bullying their children had faced. They complained that the district’s bullying policy was too vague and that students who harass their peers were being let off the hook.
Each shared similar experiences of being told that something would be done the next time their child was bullied. Still, they said, nothing changed.
“How many times can it happen again before we do something?” asked one mother, according to an archived video of the board meeting.
But a few months later, when a viral incident revealed that a 7th grader in the 5,000-student district was receiving handwritten notes urging her to kill herself, the conversation in Wisconsin Rapids came to a head and another town in America joined a small, but growing trend to stop school bullies by fining their parents.
“Bullying has been around for a long time,” said Craig Broeren, the superintendent of the Wisconsin Rapids district. “And some of the conversation and commentary was around various methods to help with additional intervention and to take every step possible at our disposal.”
Proposed by Broeren and approved earlier this summer by the city council, a new ordinance aims to hold parents legally responsible for their child’s repeated bullying behaviors and issues up to $250 in fines if they don’t stop.
In effect for this school year, the ordinance also prohibits any form of retaliation against students who report bullying.
Parental Liability Laws
In recent years, there have been several attempts at the state and local levels to hold parents responsible when their child is found to be a bully, though experts on bullying say there is no evidence that such approaches are effective.
Wisconsin may be the birthplace of the idea. The town of Monona, Wis., passed one of the country’s first ordinances in 2013, followed by similar efforts in Plover, Wis., and Shawano, Wis.
In New York, the town of North Tonawanda holds parents responsible for their child’s bullying by leveling a $250 fine or up to 15 days in jail.
In New Jersey, a proposed Senate bill referred to as “Mallory’s Law"—named after 12-year-old Mallory Grossman, a victim of school and cyberbullying who committed suicide—would impose civil liability and require parents to take a training class with their child for bullying. It also calls for fines that start at $100 and could rise to $500 for multiple offenses.
Meanwhile, a state legislative proposal in Pennsylvania to fine parents upwards of $500 and require community service has not progressed more than a year after it was introduced.
Making a Problem Worse?
Last October, parents in Wisconsin Rapids aired several problems they had with how schools had handled reports of bullying. One mother told the school board she reviewed nine school handbooks after her son continued to be bullied, despite reporting it a year prior. She noted that two of the handbooks had no reference to bullying at all, while the others included copied excerpts from the district’s policy.
Another mother reported that her daughter had been handcuffed to a bench during recess and had her glasses broken. Although the principal assured her that the parents of the alleged bully were notified, she said her daughter had to return to school in fear of facing the boy who bullied her.
“I’m just hoping that you guys can look at the policy and maybe fix it because it’s broken and it’s not getting any better,” she told the board.
Superintendent Broeren told the parents that he empathized, as a parent himself.
He asked them to continue coming forward and pledged that the district would look at taking more proactive steps and increasing the consequences for repeated bullying behaviors.
Before that meeting, the school district had already begun evaluating its policy and additional measures for intervening when bullying is reported, including consulting with law enforcement, Broeren told Education Week in an interview. Despite the high-profile incident earlier this year that drew attention to the district, Broeren maintains that bullying was not a widespread problem.
“The move on our part with this request was not because I feel we have some earth-shatteringly different approaches here or different circumstances,” said Broeren. “It really wasn’t precipitated as a result of us having what I would call a disproportionate amount of bullying.”
According to a recent report from the U.S Department of Education, “Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2018,” 20 percent of students nationwide between the ages of 12-18 reported being bullied at school in 2017.
And 41 percent of students reported that they thought it would happen again.
Meanwhile, 6 percent of students purposefully avoided school activities, classes, or one or more locations at school because they thought someone might physically attack them or harm them.
But can fines and other deterrence efforts that target parents help?
To Deborah Temkin, an expert on bullying and prevention, the answer is no. Even with good intentions behind them, such policies criminalize behaviors and don’t address the root causes of bullying.
“Criminalizing or otherwise imposing discipline is really not an effective strategy for deterring bullying or actually rectifying the harm that bullying has caused,” said Temkin, the senior program area director for education at Child Trends, a research and advocacy group in Bethesda, Md.
“They’re simply to punish. We know that kids who bully, sometimes they have some underlying trauma, they have some underlying reasons why they’re engaging that behavior, and punishment does nothing to actually address that.”
But Broeren sees the ordinance as one part of a larger set of policies to address the problem.
“No one’s under the illusion here that if we implement this, bullying is going to stop and it’s going to solve the problem,” said Broeren. “This has never been sold as the panacea, the answer to all questions. It’s just yet another piece of the puzzle.”
While students with bullying behaviors come from many different social and class backgrounds, some scholars believe ordinances like the one in Wisconsin Rapids can actually make the situation worse for families who are already struggling.
“They are enacted with the best of intentions, but we have no true empirical research to demonstrate that they will have the intended effect,” said Eve Brank, a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a researcher on parental liability laws. “In fact, some scholars argue that they actually could have some pretty negative, unintended effects. For instance, there is some argument that they could disproportionately impact single mothers and minority parents, in particular. And you are effectively taking even more limited resources away from families and parents who have the most limited resources already.”
But Broeren is skeptical that the ordinance will lead to such negative consequences, especially with other policies in place to address bullying.
Currently, school officials thoroughly investigate reports of bullying, Broeren said. If bullying is occurring, a conversation with parents about stopping the behavior would resolve the issue. Additionally, the district will keep in place its anti-bullying education programs for students who harass others and mental health counseling services for victims. If a student persists in the bullying behavior despite several warnings, school officials contact law enforcement authorities to reach out to the student’s family for a more serious conversation. Parents would receive a citation and be fined as a last resort, according to Broeren.
“Our law enforcement officers, at least here, are not into writing citations,” said Broeren. "[Law enforcement] are into having conversations and getting the behavior to change. If the behavior changes, conceivably, nothing happens.”
Broeren said in Plover, the first town to adopt the anti-bullying ordinance, the policy is working as a deterrent. There, he said, police have issued no citations in the four years since the ordinance was adopted.
The superintendent in Stevens Point Area Public Schools, in Plover, could not be reached to comment on how the ordinance there has impacted students and families in the district.
Dan Ault, Plover’s police chief, is a strong proponent of the ordinance.
“There are children out there who are dead,” said Ault, referring to cases where persistent bullying led to the suicides of those who were harassed or other violent behavior. “And there are those that bullied those children who are probably struggling just as much in life with their actions now knowing what they did. And so this ordinance is about protecting them, and the victim, and the parents and the community.”
There’s little to no research to determine if fining parents—or the threat of it—can reduce bullying in schools, according to Temkin.
“I think part of the intention is for adults to become more aware,” said Temkin. “But there is not good evidence that making the threat is going to really achieve that outcome.”
While it’s unclear if the ordinances are making a measurable difference elsewhere around the country, both Broeren and Temkin agree that improving school climate and teacher-student relationships can help prevent bullying.
“There is some good emerging evidence,” said Temkin. “Things like improving the school climate and really focusing on improving the student-teacher relationship, as well as the relationships within the school, can go a long way to preventing bullying.”
"[Teachers] are ultimately the first line of defense,” said Broeren. “They’re ultimately the people that need to be aware of what’s going on… with kids and their interactions.”
Although the answer might not be to fine parents, family does matter. Students who have a better sense of belonging at home and at school are less likely to bully, according to a recently published study.
“Kids that feel like they belong to their family, peer networks, and schools are less likely to be involved in bullying,” said Chad Rose, an associate professor and researcher at the University of Missouri.
“Punitive measures have rarely worked. We’ve gone through this with schools time and time again, with zero tolerance and things of that nature.”
Meanwhile, Ault believes it’s worth taking a chance with the ordinances to stop bullying and prevent further tragedy.
“If we can keep one kid from killing themselves, if we can keep one kid from bringing a gun to school and shooting up a school... ,” Ault said. “If we did this across 1,000 communities across the United States, and we prevented just one of those acts,” he said, “then I would say this whole thing would be successful.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 2019 edition of Education Week as In Battle Against Bullies, Schools Target Parents