Monona parents whose children repeatedly bully others can now be ticketed by police and fined in municipal court.
The approach, part of a broader anti-bullying ordinance passed May 20 by the Monona City Council, appears to break new ground in the national effort to reduce harassment and emotional abuse among young people.
Julie Hertzog, director of the National Bullying Prevention Center in Bloomington, Minn., said she had not heard of such a tactic and was hesitant to comment for that reason. “This is the first time it’s been on my radar,” she said.
Likewise, the League of Wisconsin Municipalities said it could find no other municipal ordinances in the state that hold parents accountable for an offspring’s bullying. The Monona ordinance took effect Thursday.
Monona Police Chief Wally Ostrenga said no specific incident led to the ordinance, just a general concern about the tragic consequences of bullying, including a rash of school shootings and teen suicides across the country.
He thinks the parent-liability clause will be used sparingly, if at all, and only in cases where parents are obstructive or uncooperative. He hopes the mere threat of a ticket will be enough.
“Sometimes you’ll knock on someone’s door and they won’t want to talk to you — their kids are perfect, they could never do anything wrong,” Ostrenga said. “This is for those times when we get the door slammed in our faces.”
Parents who are making a good-faith effort to address a child’s behavior would not be ticketed, he said.
City Attorney William S. Cole called the tactic “a tool of last resort” and said he believes it would withstand a court challenge.
Parents can’t be blindsided under the ordinance. Before being ticketed, a parent or guardian must be informed in writing by an officer of a separate violation of bullying by the same minor within the prior 90 days.
A ticket is a municipal code violation, not a criminal offense. (Only the state Legislature can make something a criminal offense.)
A first violation of the parent-liability clause carries a $114 fine. Subsequent violations within the same year carry fines of $177 each.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Jason Burns, executive director of Equality Wisconsin, a Milwaukee nonprofit organization that works on bullying prevention in schools. “It forces parents to be more involved in their child’s life, if they’re not already.”
The broader ordinance prohibits any person age 12 or older from engaging in bullying, subject to similar municipal fines. The ordinance defines bullying as “an intentional course of conduct which is reasonably likely to intimidate, emotionally abuse, slander, threaten or intimidate another person and which serves no legitimate purpose.”
Much of the broader ordinance addresses conduct already prohibited by state statute, Ostrenga said. However, the state statutes don’t use the term “bullying.” The city wanted to be explicit and public about its stand against bullying, he said.
Much of the work on the parent-liability clause — the unique aspect of the ordinance — was done by Monona Det. Sgt. Ryan Losby, who shepherded the ordinance through a year-long city review process. Losby said he was motivated by research showing almost all of the recent school shootings in the country were committed by students who felt they were victims of bullying.
“That end of the violence has really escalated,” Losby said. “There’s also the problem with social media. It’s too easy to put someone down on Facebook or through mass texts. You’re not looking at that person as a human being.”
The Monona ordinance adopts state statute language on harassment via computerized devices, thereby giving Monona police the ability to issue municipal citations for cyberbullying.
The ordinance is applicable only in the city of Monona. That means schools in the Monona Grove School District that are located in Cottage Grove are not under the ordinance’s jurisdiction. Losby said he hopes to convince other Dane County municipalities to adopt the ordinance.
In general, the ordinance is designed to give victims of bullying hope that someone will take their concerns seriously, said Monona Mayor Bob Miller.
“Ordinances reflect the values of a community,” he said. “It would be my desire that the bullying ordinance reflects the values of Monona.”