If children are bullies, parents could pay the price

In a small town in New York, parents can now be jailed and fined if their children bully other children. Lawmakers says it is an attempt to hold parents accountable for their children's behavior if they are not already making some kind of effort to do so. 

Carolyn Thompson/AP
The North Tonawanda City Council in New York passed a law that would hold parents responsible for their children's bullying behavior with potential jail time and fines.

First came the sucker-punch to their 13-year-old son from an older boy outside a dollar store.

Then came the gut-punch from police, who told the parents they were all but powerless to punish the 15-year-old attacker.

"We were essentially told that, being a minor, there was nothing that could be done," said William Crago, whose son was left with a black eye. "We actually heard that several times: 'There's nothing we can do.'"

Not anymore.

This city just north of Buffalo is getting attention for a new law that lets authorities send parents of bullies to jail for up to 15 days and fine them up to $250.

The City Council voted unanimously Oct. 3 to amend an existing law to add bullying, harassment, and underage drinking to the existing curfew violations parents already could be held accountable for. Lawmakers also removed a provision that prevented anything more than a warning for a first offense, meaning parents can face a fine or jail right away.

A community coalition begun by Mr. Crago and his wife, Victoria, after the May 8 attack on their son pushed for the change, which was supported by police and schools in the 31,000-person city.

Even in cases where kids are convicted in Family Court, Crago said, there are no real consequences. He said the boy who punched his son was given probation, and only after the Cragos pushed for an assault conviction.

"It will make a big difference with the hard-core problem groups," said City Attorney Luke Brown, noting that police have been frustrated by a group of 10 to 12 teenagers who "know how to walk up to a fine line and not cross it" and parents who've not done enough to change the behavior.

Typically, police drive misbehaving kids home or have their parents pick them up, sometimes writing the parents violations if the child has violated curfew, Capt. Thomas Krantz said. The law change, he said, is not aimed at parents who cooperate with the police and schools in trying to fix the problem.

"It's for the parents ... who don't have the wherewithal to do what they need to do to get their kids in line," Mr. Krantz said, "The ones who say, 'It's not my problem.'"

North Tonawanda's law was modeled after one adopted a couple of years ago by a handful of towns in Wisconsin.

Plover, Wis., Police Chief Dan Ault acknowledged his officers have issued just three or four warnings, and no fines, since the law was adopted in 2015, but the mere threat of punishment has been enough to get parents' attention.

"We've certainly deterred the behavior," Mr. Ault said this week. "They're being a little bit more aware. Why? Because, 'Holy cow, I'd better pay attention because I don't want to go to jail for 15 days. I don't want to pay a $250 fine.'"

Crago and Ault said they have fielded some criticism that the statute amounts to "government intrusion" or will add to the hardship of already troubled homes.

"We are not telling you how to raise your children," Ault added. "This is merely asking you to please raise your children. Please be part of your children's life."

Amanda Nickerson, director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, said she would welcome more research into whether parental responsibility laws are actually effective at reducing juvenile crime.

"It's intuitively appealing to say we take bullying really seriously and parents need to be held accountable," Ms. Nickerson said. "But if we're truly looking to have youth behave in more pro-social, positive ways, I have a hard time thinking that the threat of punishing a parent or actually punishing a parent" would help.

North Tonawanda resident Ashley Miller said she approved of the law "because there's just so much nonsense and people getting hurt."

"A lot of people will probably say they can't control their kids," said Ms. Miller, who is expecting her first child in January, "but that's part of being a parent."

John Zaleski, a resident and a former Marine, said parents should be responsible for steering their kids in the right direction – adding he wouldn't have needed the threat of jail to respond if any of his 11 children got out of line.

"They'd be sorry I found out about it," he said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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