Wisconsin city to fine parents $681 if their kids bully. Is that fair?

The City Council of Shawano has decided that parents should be held accountable. But experts say the move isn't based on sound research.

Mark R. Sullivan/Home News Tribune via AP
In this Friday, Oct. 3, 2014 photograph, audience members react as members of the Sayreville Board of Education hold a press conference at the Selover School in South Amboy, N.J., to address a hazing incident that "went too far" and is at the center of the investigation into the Sayreville War Memorial High School football team.

Can parents prevent their children from bullying their peers at school? The Shawano City Council in Wisconsin seems to think so.

In the latest effort to curb bullying in schools, the county has passed an ordinance that will fine parents whose children are determined to be bullies at school, Fox11 News in Green Bay, Wisc., reports. The city plans to coordinate efforts with local school districts and the police to identify bullies.

The ordinance follows an idea that some experts have long held; that children turning into bullies is in part, a result of lack of proper discipline at home. That if parents mold their children's behavior when they are young, if they teach them to be compassionate and to treat others fairly then the children are less likely to become bullies at schools.

Two other cities in the state; Plova and Monoma have already taken similar measures.

The new law is mirrored after similar state laws that seek to hold parents accountable for their children’s crimes if it is established that the parents are "contributing to the delinquency of a minor." It targets school-age children who are 18 and under.

But some experts contend that the laws may be getting ahead of behavioral research. 

There haven’t been enough studies that show how this approach has been applied and whether it is effective, Justin Patchin, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, tells the Christian Science Monitor in a telephone interview.

In his blog addressing whether parents should be held accountable for their children’s behavior, Dr. Patchin says there needs to be more research before these laws are passed.

“it’s impossible to speak about whether they are a good tool or not,” Eve Brank, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln who has studied parental responsibility laws in depth, told Patchin for his blog. "We know that parents certainly play an important role in raising their children, but we do not know the effect of imposing legal sanctions on them when their children are involved in illegal behavior.”  

Patchin, who has worked with children involved in cyberbullying, says that parents often don’t know that their children bully, and when they do, they are usually quick to respond. He says that some of these children are often suffering from psychological disorders that parents can’t handle.

And others agree. “Holding parents legally responsible for their children's behavior, however, is probably not in society's best interest," Jessica Henry, a former public defender and chairperson of the Department of Justice Studies at Montclair State University, writes in the Ashbury Park Press. “As research on juvenile delinquency has established, children are developmentally immature, lacking in impulse control and an understanding of the long-term consequences of their actions. To hold most parents liable for the ill-conceived, albeit sometimes vicious, actions of their children seems, to put it mildly, unfair.”

In the Shawano City Council case, parents will be alerted when it is established that their child were involved in bullying incidents, and they will have 90 days to rectify the situation. If the child’s behavior doesn’t change, the parents will be fined up to $366. If the child is implicated in a second incident the parent will face a $681 fine.

Cases of bullying have recently declined in recent times, according to a 2015 report by the the US Department of Education. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, the number of students who reported to have experienced cases of bullying dropped to 22 percent in 2012-1213, the highest decline since 2005. 

One key reason for the apparent drop in harmful behaviors among students is that “young people are leading the way in gaining a greater acceptance of diversity,” says Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age in Eugene, Ore. “What I have seen in schools is that among teens it is no longer cool to denigrate somebody because of their sexual orientation or identity.”

A study by the National Bullying Prevention Center found that more than half of the bullying incidents are likely to be stopped when a peer intervenes on behalf of the victim.

Rather than holding parents responsible, studies suggest several other approaches ranging from engaging students in more conversation about bullying, to school-based prevention programs, to self-defense classes.

The school climate matters a great deal, and so do collaborative efforts between educators and parents, says Patchin. 

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