They’re on to something in North Tonawanda. Whether it is the exact right something is open to debate, but by recognizing the destructive nature of bullying and the role that parents must play in preventing it, city leaders are responding to an issue that is too often met with shrugs.
In a year characterized by teenage violence in its earlier months, the North Tonawanda Common Council last week approved the first anti-bullying law of its kind in Western New York and maybe in the whole state. While its ultimate target is the behavior of adolescents, it seeks to accomplish its goal by taking aim at parents, to the point of threatening them with a stay in jail.
As much as any area, and more than many, Western New York has learned painful lessons about the price of bullying. In 2011, for example, a teenager in Williamsville, Jamey Rodemeyer, killed himself after complaining about relentless bullying. Not everyone who is bullied will feel as hopeless as Jamey, but some will and all are injured by it.
Like crime and other aberrant behaviors, bullying is a fact of life. It won’t go away. There will always be people – young and old – who bolster their self-image by diminishing others. But inevitability isn’t an excuse for inaction. Bullying can be confronted and, in North Tonawanda, city leaders are attempting to do that.
The new ordinance, which builds on an existing one, allows a judge to hold parents responsible for minors who bully other kids, host parties where laws are violated or violate the city’s curfew. For those offenses, parents can be fined up to $250 and/or jailed for up to 15 days. Critically, judges have discretion and can impose lesser punishments.
It is, admittedly, a dicey proposition when the law holds an individual accountable for the actions of another. That problem may be mitigated some by the responsibilities of parenthood, but perhaps not to the point of incarceration. Police in other municipalities seem to understand that.
Four small towns in Wisconsin have enacted similar ordinances, though it appears no parents have been arrested as a result. Instead, police use the law and the media to induce parents to act.
“We make great efforts to work with the parents. A citation is really a last resort,” said Chief Daniel Ault of Plover, Wis.
Similarly, the police chief in Monona, Wis., said his officers have never written a ticket based on the law. “We wrote about three warning letters, two to parents of two kids in the same family,” said Chief Walter J. Ostrenga. “They eventually moved.”
Ault touched on a related issue in countering the notion that the law represents government intrusion on parental prerogatives. “It’s not us telling you how to raise your children,” he said, “It’s us telling you, ‘Please raise your children.’ ”
That’s an entirely appropriate response to bullying, but the sad fact is that some parents may not know how to raise their children. They may be – to put it bluntly – incompetent. They may have been raised in households where they learned the wrong lessons about parenting. They may have anger issues or suffer financial pressures that interfere with good parenting. They may simply believe that discipline is not for their children.
Those people need to be directed to community resources that can help them learn the skills they need – when possible, before they have children. Those opportunities exist and need to be part of the arsenal in teaching parents how to teach their children.