Behind the schoolyard bully, there's a parent. So when the bully gets caught, should the adults at home also get punished?
That's the idea behind a new ordinance in the Wisconsin city of Monona, which will allow police to fine the parents of students who bully their peers. According to hypervocal.com, the fine, handled in municipal court, amounts to $114 (U.S.) for the first offence, and $177 for every repeat offence within a single year.
According to the story, the new "parent-liability clause" was brought into effect in response to recent school violence across the United States. One of the detectives who lobbied for it reportedly said he was motivated by the fact that "almost all school shootings were perpetrated by someone who had been a victim of bullying themselves."
The connection to a parental fine, though, seems tenuous, however. Parents may be blind to their child's hurtful behaviour, or helpless to prevent them. In worst cases, they contribute to the atmosphere at home. But they're an easy target – more so because the lack of parental response in recent high-profile bullying cases has been so frustrating and egregious.
The police chief says the fine will be used sparingly,and only for parents who are "obstructive" or "unco-operative." The problem is that these approaches, in isolation, try to simplify a complicated issue: If a kid bullies, parents must be responsible. But many seemingly good kids bully, and many bullies were formerly victims, and some bullying is so subtle it's hard to pin down. The only effective response has to be community-wide - from student to teachers to school administration to parents, both proactive and reactive. This, for instance, might be a better use of taxpayer dollars: this week, the Canadian government announced $250,000 to support a Red Cross anti-bullying campaign, Stand Up to Bullying, that focuses on training teenagers, who then run workshops themselves with their peers.
In the end, a fine may send an important message that parents have a role to play, but it doesn't say anything about the help they'll get if they acknowledge their child's behaviour. What about a parent's responsibility to keep on top of their teen's online activity? To know their friends? To stay in touch with their teachers?
A fine won't make indifferent parents suddenly care. Support and education, however, might help well-meaning, if overwhelmed, parents – and teachers and teenagers – step in long before it comes to that.