Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 5
In Battle Against Bullies, Schools Target Parents
At a meeting last fall, some parents pleaded with members of the
Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., school
board to do something about bullying their children had faced. They
complained that the district's bullying policy was too vague and that
students who harass their peers were
being let off the hook.
Each shared similar experiences
of being told that something would
be done the next time their child
was bullied. Still, they said, nothing
"How many times can it happen
again before we do something?"
asked one mother, according to an
archived video of the board meeting.
But a few months later, when a
viral incident revealed that a 7th
grader in the 5,000-student district
was receiving handwritten notes
urging her to kill herself, the conversation in Wisconsin Rapids came to
a head and another town in America
joined a small, but growing trend to
stop school bullies by fining their
"Bullying has been around for a
long time," said Craig Broeren, the
superintendent of the Wisconsin
Rapids district. "And some of the
conversation and commentary was
around various methods to help with
additional intervention and to take
every step possible at our disposal."
Proposed by Broeren and approved earlier this summer by the
city council, a new ordinance aims
to hold parents legally responsible
for their child's repeated bullying
behaviors and issues up to $250 in
fines if they don't stop.
In effect for this school year, the
ordinance also prohibits any form
of retaliation against students who
Parental Liability Laws
In recent years, there have been
several attempts at the state and
local levels to hold parents responsible when their child is found to be
a bully, though experts on bullying
say there is no evidence that such approaches are effective.
Wisconsin may be the birthplace
of the idea. The town of Monona,
Wis., passed one of the country's
first ordinances in 2013, followed by
similar efforts in Plover, Wis., and
In New York, the town of North
Tonawanda holds parents responsible for their child's bullying by leveling a $250 fine or up to 15 days in jail.
In New Jersey, a proposed Senate
bill referred to as "Mallory's Law"-
named after 12-year-old Mallory
Grossman, a victim of school and
cyberbullying who committed suicide-would impose civil liability
and require parents to take a training class with their child for bullying. It also calls for fines that start
at $100 and could rise to $500 for
Meanwhile, a state legislative proposal in Pennsylvania to fine parents
upwards of $500 and require community service has not progressed
more than a year after it was introduced.
Making a Problem Worse?
Last October, parents in Wisconsin Rapids aired several problems
they had with how schools had
handled reports of bullying. One
mother told the school board she reviewed nine school handbooks after
her son continued to be bullied, despite reporting it a year prior. She
noted that two of the handbooks had
no reference to bullying at all, while
the others included copied excerpts
from the district's policy.
Another mother reported that her
daughter had been handcuffed to
a bench during recess and had her
glasses broken. Although the principal assured her that the parents of
the alleged bully were notified, she
said her daughter had to return to
school in fear of facing the boy who
"I'm just hoping that you guys can
look at the policy and maybe fix it
because it's broken and it's not getting any better," she told the board.
Superintendent Broeren told the
parents that he empathized, as a parent himself.
He asked them to continue coming forward and pledged that the
district would look at taking more
proactive steps and increasing the
consequences for repeated bullying
Before that meeting, the school
district had already begun evaluating its policy and additional measures for intervening when bullying
is reported, including consulting
with law enforcement, Broeren told
Education Week in an interview. Despite the high-profile incident earlier
this year that drew attention to the
district, Broeren maintains that bullying was not a widespread problem.
"The move on our part with this
request was not because I feel we
have some earth-shatteringly different approaches here or different circumstances," said Broeren. "It really
wasn't precipitated as a result of us
having what I would call a disproportionate amount of bullying."
According to a recent report from
the U.S Department of Education,
"Indicators of School Crime and
Safety: 2018," 20 percent of students
nationwide between the ages of 12-18
reported being bullied at school in
And 41 percent of students reported that they thought it would
Meanwhile, 6 percent of students
purposefully avoided school activities, classes, or one or more locations at school because they thought
someone might physically attack
them or harm them.
But can fines and other deterrence
efforts that target parents help?
To Deborah Temkin, an expert on
bullying and prevention, the answer
is no. Even with good intentions behind them, such policies criminalize
behaviors and don't address the root
causes of bullying.
"Criminalizing or otherwise imposing discipline is really not an effective strategy for deterring bullying or actually rectifying the harm
that bullying has caused," said Temkin, the senior program area director for education at Child Trends,
a research and advocacy group in
"They're simply to punish. We
know that kids who bully, sometimes
they have some underlying trauma,
they have some underlying reasons
why they're engaging that behavior,
and punishment does nothing to actually address that."
But Broeren sees the ordinance as
one part of a larger set of policies to
address the problem.
"No one's under the illusion here
that if we implement this, bullying
is going to stop and it's going to solve
the problem," said Broeren. "This
has never been sold as the panacea,
the answer to all questions. It's just
yet another piece of the puzzle."
While students with bullying behaviors come from many different
social and class backgrounds, some
scholars believe ordinances like the
one in Wisconsin Rapids can actually make the situation worse for
families who are already struggling.
"They are enacted with the best
of intentions, but we have no true
empirical research to demonstrate
that they will have the intended effect," said Eve Brank, a professor of
psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a researcher on
parental liability laws. "In fact, some
scholars argue that they actually
could have some pretty negative, unintended effects. For instance, there
is some argument that they could
disproportionately impact single
mothers and minority parents, in
particular. And you are effectively
taking even more limited resources
away from families and parents who
have the most limited resources already."
But Broeren is skeptical that the
ordinance will lead to such negative
consequences, especially with other
policies in place to address bullying.
Currently, school officials thoroughly investigate reports of bullying, Broeren said. If bullying is occurring, a conversation with parents
about stopping the behavior would
resolve the issue. Additionally,
the district will keep in place
its anti-bullying education
programs for students who
harass others and mental
health counseling services for victims. If a
student persists in
the bullying behavior despite several
authorities to reach out to the student's family for a more serious conversation. Parents would receive a
citation and be fined as a last resort,
according to Broeren.
"Our law enforcement officers, at
least here, are not into writing citations," said Broeren. "[Law enforcement] are into having conversations
and getting the behavior to change.
If the behavior changes, conceivably, nothing happens."
Broeren said in Plover, the first
town to adopt the anti-bullying ordinance, the policy is working as a deterrent. There, he said, police have
issued no citations in the four years
since the ordinance was adopted.
The superintendent in Stevens
Point Area Public Schools, in Plover,
could not be reached to comment
on how the ordinance there has impacted students and families in the
Dan Ault, Plover's police chief, is a
strong proponent of the ordinance.
"There are children out there who
are dead," said Ault, referring to
cases where persistent bullying led
to the suicides of those who were
harassed or other violent behavior.
"And there are those that bullied
those children who are probably
struggling just as much in life with
their actions now knowing what
they did. And so this ordinance is
about protecting them, and the victim, and the parents and the community."
There's little to no research to
determine if fining parents-or the
threat of it-can reduce bullying in
schools, according to Temkin.
"I think part of the intention is
for adults to become more aware,"
said Temkin. "But there is not good
evidence that making the threat is
going to really achieve that outcome."
While it's unclear if the ordinances are making a measurable
difference elsewhere around the
country, both Broeren and Temkin
agree that improving school climate
and teacher-student relationships
can help prevent bullying.
"There is some good emerging
evidence," said Temkin. "Things
like improving the school climate
and really focusing on improving
the student-teacher relationship, as
well as the relationships within the
school, can go a long way to preventing bullying."
"[Teachers] are ultimately the
first line of defense," said Broeren.
"They're ultimately the people that
need to be aware of what's going
on... with kids and their interactions."
Although the answer might not be
to fine parents, family does matter.
Students who have a better sense of
belonging at home and at school are
less likely to bully, according to a recently published study.
"Kids that feel like they belong
to their family, peer networks, and
schools are less likely to be involved
in bullying," said Chad Rose, an associate professor and researcher at
the University of Missouri.
"Punitive measures have rarely
worked. We've gone through this
with schools time and time again,
with zero tolerance and things of
Meanwhile, Ault believes it's
worth taking a chance with the ordinances to stop bullying and prevent
"If we can keep one kid from killing themselves, if we can keep one
kid from bringing a gun to school
and shooting up a school... ," Ault
said. "If we did this across 1,000
communities across the United
States, and we prevented just one of
those acts," he said, "then I would
say this whole thing would be successful."
By Héctor Alejandro Arzate
EDUCATION WEEK | September 4, 2019 | www.edweek.org | 5
Education Week - September 4, 2019
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - September 4, 2019
Education Week - September 4, 2019
Quality counts: Grading The States
Open-Source Science Curriculum Makes Debut
Are Schools Required To Be Trauma-Sensitive?
Google Tool Fuels Debate About Teaching Writing
In Battle Against Bullies, Schools Target Parents
Teacher-Drivers Keep Wheels On the Bus Going Round
What the Research Says
What Are Threat Assessments And How Do Schools Use Them?
The Challenges Ahead For Advanced Placement
School Leaders: Avoid This Move
Letters to the Editor
EdWeek Top School Jobs
You Skipped a Step’
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CA1
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CA2
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - Google Tool Fuels Debate About Teaching Writing
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 2
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - Briefly Stated
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 4
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - In Battle Against Bullies, Schools Target Parents
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - What the Research Says
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - What Are Threat Assessments And How Do Schools Use Them?
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 8
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 9
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 10
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 11
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 12
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 13
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 14
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 15
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 16
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 17
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 18
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 19
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 20
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 21
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 22
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - The Challenges Ahead For Advanced Placement
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - School Leaders: Avoid This Move
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - Letters to the Editor
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - 26
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - EdWeek Top School Jobs
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - You Skipped a Step’
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CA3
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CA4
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CW1
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CW2
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CW3
Education Week - September 4, 2019 - CW4