North Tonawanda has a message for parents of bullies: If your kid commits a crime, you might do the time.
Not a lot of time – no more than 15 days – but long enough to reflect on your bad parenting from the inside of a jail cell.
A new anti-bullying law passed by the North Tonawanda Common Council last week is the first of its kind in Western New York and may be the first in New York State, City Attorney Luke A. Brown said. It places the legal onus on parents of minors who bully other kids, host parties where laws are violated, or who stay out after the city's curfew.
The law sprang from the frustration of parents and police over juvenile violence earlier this year in North Tonawanda.
A small group of middle school students caused the trouble, said Capt. Karen Smith of the North Tonawanda Police Department, the city's juvenile aid officer until recently.
"I can tell you that, back as the juvenile officer, this last spring and summer was the worst I had seen in the 19 years I've been there, with this core group of about five juvenile males who were getting in trouble on a real regular basis," Smith said.
The incident that led to the new law was an attack by an eighth-grade boy on another student May 8 in front of a Dollar General store on Nash Road.
"The suspect was in the area, which is a common area for the kids to hang around after middle school lets out, and the victim came out of the store with his mom, and the suspect just came up and sucker-punched him," Smith said.
The attacker was prosecuted in Family Court, but trouble continued.
"It seemed like this individual was still on the streets, causing havoc. The police were caught in a corner where they felt they couldn't do anything."
In the wake of the Nash Road attack, William T. Crago, the father of the victim, co-founded with other parents the North Tonawanda Coalition for Safe Schools and Streets.
"One of these boys assaulted my son, and we tried to do something about it," Crago said. "We were told he's a minor, there's nothing we can do, they can't go to jail. It appears these kids know this, too."
'Things were too loose'
Under the new law, the maximum penalties for the parents include a $250 fine, 15 days in jail, or both.
"The intent is to protect and prevent," Mayor Arthur G. Pappas said. "It was the result of people in the community who thought things were too loose in regard to juveniles."
"The big thing is to have parents have more control of their children," said Nicholas B. Robinson, the assistant city attorney who wrote the new law.
"Everybody's working together to make the city safer," Brown said.
"I'm all for it," said Greg Woytila, the school superintendent. "When you've got 3,000-plus students and two or three are out of control, that's too many. One's too many. Sometimes the police officers are the only ones trying. The families have given up."
North Tonawanda already had a law on the books that established the principle of parental liability for kids' misbehavior – a curfew law that bars unaccompanied minors from being on the streets after 11 p.m. on weeknights or midnight on weekends.
It allows the police to cite the parents of the curfew violators, although it is seldom done. Brown, the city attorney, said he saw no more than one or two such tickets in 2016, seven or eight so far this year.
That law previously required the city judges to let parents off with a warning the first time they were charged with allowing their kids to break curfew.
But since a unanimous Council vote Tuesday, the first time could now lead to jail time. The Council also included the possibility of charges for parents of bullies or hosts of rowdy parties. But the jail term or the maximum fine are not mandatory.
"The new resolution gives discretion to a judge. They can still have a warning or a small fine," Pappas said. "It can be applied fairly and still be effective."
The Wisconsin experience
The idea for the law came from Wisconsin, where four small towns have passed laws in the last four years allowing the parents of bullies to be charged. It appears no parents have been arrested there.
"We've never written a ticket," said Police Chief Walter J. Ostrenga of Monona, Wis. "We wrote about three warning letters, two to parents of two kids in the same family. They eventually moved."
"We make great efforts to work with the parents. A citation is really a last resort," said Chief Daniel Ault of Plover, Wis.
He said the right way to implement a parental liability law is to publicly explain it and take advantage of media coverage.
"If you explain it, there's very little controversy over it," Ault said. "If you just roll it out, you get, 'It's government regulation, government telling you how to raise your children.' It's not us telling you how to raise your children. It's us telling you, 'Please raise your children.' "
"Bullying is a learned behavior," Ault said. "This is something that can make a giant difference in a tremendous problem if it's reported correctly and enforced in the right spirit."
Is this legal?
"I don't think it's a good idea, legally, constitutionally or practically," said Charles P. Ewing, who teaches criminal law at the University at Buffalo Law School.
"I would have serious doubts about whether you could impose criminal liability on a parent for the acts of a child," Ewing said. "The idea is to sort of beat our chests and say, 'We're not going to tolerate this anymore and somebody's got to do something.' If this were perceived to be a problem that needed criminalizing, it should be up to the State Legislature to criminalize it."
He said parents of victims are free to sue a bully's family. Last week a parent in the Royalton-Hartland district sued the school and the parents of a student who beat up the plaintiff's son in the cafeteria.
Ewing said such lawsuits point to another problem with the North Tonawanda law. A conviction, with proof beyond a reasonable doubt, leaves a parent practically defenseless against a civil suit.
Despite his objections, however, Ewing doubted the new law would be challenged.
"It happens so infrequently, and if you're going to fine somebody a relatively small amount of money, it's easier for them to pay it than to hire a lawyer to challenge it and appeal a conviction," Ewing said.