Bullying is a huge problem across the country, with one out of every four children between the ages of 12 and 18 reporting that they've been bullied during the school year.
A Wisconsin city is taking a novel approach to the issue, charging parents a fine of several hundred dollars if their child is the one doing the bullying.
This month, the city council in Shawano, Wisconsin passed an ordinance spelling out a clear plan for any bullying or harassment.
Parents will first be notified of their child's behavior and given 90 days to address it. If it occurs again, parents will be issued a $366 fine, according to Fox59. A second offense would result in a fine of nearly $700.
"It is specifically a bullying ordinance, and a harassment ordinance, that prohibits that kind of behavior," Mark Kohl, Shawano's chief of police, told The Huffington Post.
Law enforcement officers are not targeting "playground-type kid talk," he said, but rather more serious incidents that take a clear toll on the victim -- and the ordinance includes definitions for law enforcement officers to refer to. Bullying is any behavior that intentionally intimidates, threatens, slanders, or emotionally abuses another child. Harassment can be physical, verbal or written.
"If it happens on school property," Kohl added, "they have their own policies and procedures that we don't enforce and we don't get involved with. This is basically [for] off the school grounds, outside of school hours."
The new ordinance has generated a great deal of media attention, and while some local parents have been critical, he claims the response has been largely enthusiastic.
"It's been 99.9 percent positive," Kohl said, adding that he's fielded calls from other police agencies both within and outside of the state who are interested in the idea.
Shawano is not the first place in the country where parents of children accused of bullying have faced fines. Similar efforts have been tried elsewhere in Wisconsin, for example. Several years ago, a California city came close to criminalizing bullying, generating much media attention in the process, though the measure did not pass.
However, it is not necessarily clear how effective fining parents is as a strategy for stopping bullying.
"Ordinances that fine parents for children's bullying haven't been carefully studied," said Dr. Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University and a Chicago-based clinical psychologist. "Although approaches such as this one may have an intuitive appeal, programs that are effective in curbing bullying are much more comprehensive and ideally are preventative."
One benefit of the new program is that it makes it much more difficult for parents to ignore their chid's bullying, Meyers said, and hopefully encourages them to get help.
But there are also potential complications: What if accumulating fines increase stress and conflict at home because families can't afford to pay them?
"Should parents be fined when their child is simultaneously a bully and a victim, which does occur?" Meyers questioned.
These are all issues that the city of Shawano will now have to navigate, although Kohl said he was hopeful that law enforcement will not ultimately have to charge many parents fines.
"The intent is to solicit help from the parents," he said, "and work in partnership with them."
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