School bus stop sign file (copy)

A stop sign is seen on the side of a school bus. 

Last week, the Wisconsin Rapids City Council passed a resolution to act against bullying. The proposed ordinance to impose fines on parents of young bullies — which will take effect if it passes a second time next month — will send two messages. First, it will say, as a society, the victims of bullies have a strong ally. Second, it makes clear that everyone involved with a bullying experience, even the parents of the perpetrator, must bear some of the responsibility.

The ordinance would prohibit bullying, harassment and retaliation against anyone who reports such incidents. The measure would also hold parents and guardians responsible for such behavior of children younger than 18 years old. Penalties for a first fineable offense would be $50, with additional costs bringing the total to $313. I am a strong supporter of this measure, but even more so of the determination of a school district and community to come to terms with the harmful and damaging consequences of bullying.

I write about this matter with a personal perspective. My best friend and I were victims of bullies throughout our school years, with high school in the late 1970s being the most intensely troubling. Three months after graduation, the county sheriff arrived at my home to tell me of the suicide of the person I had known better than anyone else since I was nine years old. I offer that insight for the sole reason of making it clear, I know what is at stake when it comes to youth who are bullied. My efforts over time, from Big Brothers to working with a mentoring program for troubled teenagers, have been my way of moving forward.

During my high school years, I viewed the hallways and rooms as a gauntlet that was to be navigated, and the day without a rough shove or hit a success. It was far too easy for faculty to watch kids torment the smart kids, the gay kids, the kids who were differentm by pretending not to see anything. "See something, say nothing" — there is less paperwork and less confrontation with parents — and by extension with administrators who would inevitably choose the wrong side. It was always too easy to hear comments like “That’s so gay!” or “You’re such a wuss," and not have any of the adults in the room stop and make those words a teachable moment.

Why this ordinance is so important is that they have accepted there is a problem within the school culture. They know it will take work in order to remedy. It takes conscious community effort from the school board right on down to the teaching assistants and families who send their kids there, along with the council's vote. The push back against bullying requires all our help.

Years ago, I worked at a nonprofit that arranged for mentors to be placed with teenagers who were in group homes. If these young teens did not set their paths in a more positive direction, things were sure to get worse. Part of my job was to speak with the teenagers and do an assessment for placement with a mentor. One of the first to sit in the office with me looked every part the average male teenager. He was in a group home, which demonstrated to me that there was a lot going on behind those eyes, even if they seemingly only reflected the lights of the office. I never anticipated, however, the words he spoke in such a plain and powerful way when responding to a question as to why he wanted a mentor. It was not so he could get away from the group home, or catch a burger or pizza, or even toss a football at a park. No, the reason this young man wanted a mentor was distinct: “I want someone to talk with. I want someone to hear what I have to say.”

For me, hearing those words rang like a stark bell. It was what I had felt at his age. The very thing that I needed at one time in my life and was unable to articulate or attain was what this troubled teenager was so simply able to state. This time there was an adult who was listening to what was being said. I was not about to let the ball drop.

Bullying should never be allowed to happen, and we need to make sure the young people in our life have at least one person who is always there to listen and be non-judgmental. It must be recognized that bullying happens in large part because first there is a bully who taunts, demeans, and harms another. But there also needs to be a clear recognition that those who bully are often allowed to do so because there are others who witness such acts and never take the initiative to make sure it does not continue.

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That needs to end. One of the ways to achieve that is with the passage of the ordinance in Wisconsin Rapids which will doubtless makes news and encourage other parents and communities to act in a similar measure.

Today’s youth deserve no less.

Gregory Humphrey, of Madison, is a former broadcaster and legislative aide. A similar version of this column previously appeared on his blog, Caffeinated Politics.

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